Saturday, September 4, 2010

Can you see the forest for the trees?

Are you a right-brain person or a left-brain person? I'm not talking about politics, but about which hemisphere of your old pumpkin, if either, dominates your thinking and perceptions. The truth might surprise you.

Yesterday M and J went to a lecture by Dr. Camille Tessitore King, a neurobiologist and psychology professor and one of M's former Stetson University colleagues. The talk was called "Left Brain / Right Brain? A Half-brained Idea?" and Dr. King's conclusion was that it's a useful construct--and has been for well over a hundred years--but that nowadays it tends to be overdone (especially since advertisers have finally glommed onto it).

Traditionally the left brain is viewed as the logical, linear-thinking half, good at handling small details like storing your vocabularies (both regular and foreign) and solving math problems. The right side is more free-flowing--responsible for creativity (using your words effectively, for example), as well as intuition, reading emotions in people's faces, and otherwise grasping the "big picture." People whose right brains dominate tend to see the whole forest, while left-brain folks focus more on the individual trees. Also it's well known that right-eye vision and right-side motor skills are processed by the left brain, while left-eye vision and left-side body movements are the work of the right brain.

But when it comes to thinking and analyzing, the truth is that in most people's brains, neither side is more than mildly dominant, and in many brains the results are about 50-50. This is because there is a lot of cooperation between the two hemispheres by way of a bridge called the corpus callosum. Of course there are exceptions here and there, especially if someone's right or left hemisphere doesn't work well because of a stroke. There are also a lot of "split-brain" people whose corpus callosi have been surgically cut to keep bad epileptic seizures in one side from firing across and affecting the other side. These two types of patients, according to Professor King, have been the subjects of most of the research that ended up showing how the brain's hemispheres work in the first place.

To illustrate how the two halves of the brain can perceive something differently, Dr. King showed this painting by a 16th-century Italian artist named Giuseppe Arcimboldo. Nothing remarkable here--just a big bowl of fresh-picked vegetables:

But what if we turn this picture upside-down (or in fact, right-side-up, the way Arcimboldo actually intended it)?

If you still see nothing but a bowl and a bunch of veggies, your left brain is in full command of your noodle. But chances are that you also see a bearded, rosy-cheeked man in a helmet. This means you've got some right brain working for you as well. (If all you can see is the man, and no veggies at all, your right brain is definitely large and in charge.)

By the way, in case you wonder how a dog like me could care about this, let me tell you that I did some Googling and found out that canine brains--and those of other mammals--are also arranged in two hemispheres connected by a corpus callosum, and that lots of research is done to study how animals think. I'm down with that as long as they don't get carried away "creating" test subjects!

Before I wrap up this post, I want to say that I think Arcimboldo's painting of the helmeted man is cooler than the other side of the pillow! I did another Google search to see what else of his might be out there and found, for your viewing pleasure (titles added by yours truly) . . .

Ye Olde Flower Childe:

Sushi Man (ignore the sea otter above his ear):

Fruit, Veggie, and Whole-Grain Warrior:

Who the heck knows what this last one is? When I look at it in its entirety, I see a Martian with an attitude. When I focus on just the eggplant, it's a very irritated Shamu.

There are lots of short tests online to help you determine your brain's "hemispheric preference." For one interesting example, follow this link.


cleemckenzie said...

Yes, I did enjoy the veggie r/l brain experience. I think mostly my r brain kicked in, but I'm so overwhelmed with my harvest this week that I may have just been tired and my l brain was taking a break.

Next week I'm adding a link on my blog to this one. It's a perfect companion to what I'm doing this season.

Thanks, Buddy.

BUDDY said...

Thank you for stopping by, Lee! M and I both hope your writing muse keeps you busy turning out the pages. Those garden/food pics on your blog look so great - reminded me a little of this Arcimboldo dude's work!

Anonymous said...

Hey Buddy!

What part of my brain made me tune in to PBS today and watch a Natl. Gallery of Art special featuring Arcimboldo's work, a special being shown to preceed the opening of the NGA's exhibition here later this month? I can't wait to see it and will think of you when I do! It was quite a surprise to find this subject on your blog today - ESP ? The range of your interests boggles my brain!

TG/SJF (Arl./DC)

BUDDY said...

That whole three-day string of events--the lecture, the blog post, and then the PBS special about the upcoming fourth event--look like good old Jungian synchronicity at work! As for what made you check out the TV show, who knows? Start the spooky music...

Jenny No-Brain said...

Thanks for the lesson! My employer put together an Art program a few years back. It included "Ye Olde Flower Childe."