Another amazing Radiolab aired May 5, 2021 (Staph and Gamma) that revisited and provide updates on two simple scientific discoveries that potentially hold huge ramifications for our modern times. This episode began by replaying an earlier show Robert Krulsich did with Molly Webster back in 2016. At the time, this was breaking news. This episodes includes updates as of 2020.
Li-Huei Tsai is a professor and director of the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT. Li-Huei explained to Molly how most research on Alzheimer’s disease (a disease that affects every family) has focused on genes predisposing people to developing this disease later in life. But, Li-Huei took a different approach at looking at this disease. Her work centers on gamma frequencies, which are like a beat in your brain (a type of brainwave).
Entire groups of neurons will beat at the same time. Some beat at 1 beat per second. Others beat at 600 beats per second. A person who needs to super focus his or her attention requires groups of neurons to beat at 30 to 100 beats per second. These are gamma beats. We can measure them through EEG recordings.
They look like this.
Brainwaves andAlzheimer’s Research
Li-Huei explains how the human brain has billions and billions of neurons. To do what we do as humans, process information, have a thought, problem-solve, communicate with each other, and remember things, all these neurons need to communicate with each other. The neural cell has long tentacles that reach out towards other neurons like waving hands. When an electrical signal passes through them, it is like a zap that sends a signal (neural transmitter) across the gap to another neuron, which turns it on.
To walk, write a poem, or compose a song, whole groups of neurons must turn on and fire in synchrony. The gamma frequency (or synchrony) has been considered very important for the higher order cognitive function. However, Molly Webster explains that when you look at an Alzheimer’s brain, what you see is there’s actually less gamma happening. Or people say, like, the power of gamma is reduced.
Li-Huei says this is because not all the neurons can be recruited to oscillate at the gamma frequency and this is because of plaques that build up around neurons gunking them up. the more plaque, the harder it is to think…sort of like cobwebs in the brain.
Let’s Manipulate Gamma Oscillations
So, Webster and Li-Huei wondered: What would happen if they could just bring gamma back to the brain?
Working with mice that have an early stage of Alzheimer’s disease measured by elevated levels of beta amyloid peptides, they drilled a small hole into the skull of the mouse’s head, slide a very thin fiber-optic cable into the brain (specifically, a group of cells modified to be sensitive to light), and then using blue laser light, flicker it at 40 beasts per second: a gamma wave.
They did this for one hour, the looked at the mice’s brain to see if anything was different. Not expecting to find much, they were shocked. After one hour of pulsing light, there was nearly half as much of the nasty plaque gunk filling up their hippocampus (a 40 to50% reduction of beta amyloid in their brain).
Who knew blinking light would do that? But, somehow, the pulsing light triggered the brain’s cleanup crew (microglia) that gobble up the gunk.
In a normal brain, these janitor cells are constantly gobbling up the gunk, but in an Alzheimer’s brain, it is sort of like the janitors have gone on strike. After one hour of light, the microglia cells seem to get a lot bigger, meaning they’ve gobbled up beta amyloid mucking up the brain.
With less gunk, more neurons are available to oscillate together at the gamma wavelength needed to concentrate and do higher level cognitive work.
Wait, It’s Even Better
These findings were really exciting, but drilling holes and inserting fiber-optic cable into brains is pretty invasive. So, Li-Huei wondered if there was another way to get light into the brain. Perhaps through the eyes?
So, they created a flicker room for the mice by using duct taped strips of LED lights. They put the mice in the altered cages and let the LEDs flicker at 40 beats per second. They let the mice bathe in the flickering LED glow for 1 hour. And then took a look at the amyloid beta levels in the visual cortex and once again found a 50% reduction.
Over time, they found out that if the mice are not put into the flicker-light room at least once for an hour every 24 hours, the plaque comes back. So, they are trying to see how to keep the levels down longer, or ever for good.
The Update to This Research
Since Radiolab first reported this research, Li-Huei has tried sound at 40 hertz per second for one hour with her mice.
The same thing! A 40 to 50% reduction in plague in the brain.
They are just moving into human trails, but there is a whole movement out there not waiting to find out the results. Here are just some of the interesting efforts underway, but people, companies, and meditation tapes aren’t waiting.
And there are many other products available.
Several other videos describing this light therapy include the following.
While far from conclusive and so far untested on humans, the results of the studies detailed in the podcast are extremely promising. The gist is by flickering light at and around the gamma frequency for extended periods of time, brain plaque caused by Alzheimer’s is dramatically reduced in lab mice.
This got me thinking how one would go about building a flicker box for this purpose if you wanted to try it out for yourself. My first thought was to just build a simple website (seizure warning):
I absolutely loved a recently aired episode of RadioLab titled: Man Against Horse. It originally aired December 28, 2019, but I heard it May 23, 2021. I had been working on my story trying to getting straight in my head man’s long line of evolutionary changes that ultimately lead to us, the living beings who stare at screens and do everything to extremes.
Man & His Ancestors
There was Australopithecus afarensis who emerged 3.67 to 2 million years ago in the Middle Pliocene to Early Pleistocene of South Africa, an extinct species of australopithecine. Spread:Southern Africa (Lucy’s species). I love them. Look at those eyes!
There was Homo habiliswho emerged 2.4 to 1.5 mya inhabiting parts of sub-Saharan Africa from roughly 2.4 to 1.5 million years ago (mya). In 1959 and 1960 the first fossils were discovered at Olduvai Gorge in northern Tanzania – roamed Eastern edge of Africa, moving from the Horn of Africa to the tip.Spread:Western to Southern African
There was Homo ergasterwho emerged (“working man”) is an extinct hominid species (or subspecies, according to some authorities) which lived throughout eastern and southern Africa between 1.9 to 1.4 million years ago with the advent of the lower Pleistocene and the cooling of the global climate: 1.9 to 1.4 mya (although some classifications include additional individuals that extends their range to between about 700,000 and 2 million years ago). Spread: Africa: 1.9 to 1.4 million years ago. Considered an early, exclusively African form of Homo erectus. Started making stone tools 1.6 million years ago.
And of course, there was Homo erectus who emerged 2 mya, evolving from either a late form of australopith or one of the more primitive forms of Homo, and went on to spread into many parts of Asia. Spread:Western African,Europe, Arabian Peninsula, Southern Asia, Indonesia, Philippines, New Zealand, Australia, Eastern coast of Asia to Bering Strait
There are many more early hominoid species that evolved, lived for thousands (and some more than a million) years, and then died out and disappeared. This is where I was getting lost, and this is when I took a break and tuned into RadioLab and heard this episode that straighten everything out in my mind. It all came down to the nuchal ligament and the human butt.
It’s All About the Butt
I was skeptical at first because this episode started out with Matt who began saying:
Okay, so this story comes to us from Heather, who is a fantastic writer who brought us this story that, if I were to boil it down, is about a horse, a lone man running through the desert, and what it fundamentally means to be a human being. And weirdly, butts. I didn't see this coming, but it's about butts. Just butts. Your butt. It's about your butt.
Heather is writing a book about the cultural history of the female butt. She said:
I thought I'd save that one for on tape. It started as an essay that I was just working on because I have a big butt, and I grew up in, you know, the suburbs of mid-Michigan. That was -- it was pretty white. And in high school in the '90s, it was very much like, not good to have a big butt. Like, I got made fun of, et cetera, et cetera. But then sometime in the mid-aughts, all of a sudden this body that had sort of been bringing me all this shame became attractive in sort of a mainstream way.
As Heather started taking apart and looking into issues such as race, appropriation, beauty, her essay about the butt ended up becoming a book about the butt. She asked herself: what does the butt mean? Like, what does it symbolize and why does it symbolize that? Then, she realized she had to answer a more fundamental question: Why do we even have a butt at all?
Gluteus Maximus & Evolution of Man
Daniel Lieberman is an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University who is interested in the evolution of the human body and the effects of physical activity for a long time. He wanted to understand how and why the human body evolved the way it did. Back around 1992, he was a post-doc doing research on pigs…miniature pigs running on treadmills!
Lieberman was looking at how different parts of the skeleton respond to the effect of the loads caused by exercise. Lieberman says, “Sounds like an exciting thing, but believe me it eventually gets kind of — kind of dull.” This is until the day a fellow called Dennis Bramble, a professor at the University of Utah, came to Harvard to do his own research next door to Lieberman.
Dennis Bramble recalls turning to his co-researher saying, “What the hell’s that sound? Is somebody doing something there?” And they said, “Yeah, and this guy Dan Lieberman is running pigs over there.” I said, “Oh, I gotta — I’ve gotta see this!”
Lieberman recounts Bramble popped his head in and watched the pig, then cocked his head to the side and said, ““You know Dan, that pig can’t hold its head still when it’s running.” Lieberman said, “It’s funny I’d spent hours watching pigs run on treadmills, but I never really thought about it.“
Bramble said: “You know Dan, I bet that pig’s head is flopping all around because it doesn’t have this thing called thenuchal ligament.” This ligament provides support for the head and neck. It is like a rubber band attached to the back of the animal’s skull and runs down the spine to keep the head straight as it runs. Bramble pointed out that all mammals that have specialized as runners have this nuchal ligament–everything from cheetahs to leopards to antelopes to horses, to jackrabbits and dogs. Animals who are bad runners don’t have this ligament–like pigs.
This is where my attention perked up: humans have anuchal ligament.
But, our closest hominoid cousins do not have a nuchal ligament. This includes apes, chimps, gorillas.
Humans Evolved to Run
Way back, our closest hominoid relatives split off into the genus Pan, while humans split off into the genus Homo. The first hominoid in the genus Homo to have this ligament was Homo erectus. Paleontologist can tell this by a sharp ridge on the back of the skull that this ligament leaves behind as a trace.
Daniel Lieberman says, “It doesn’t have a snout, it has smaller teeth. It’s — it’s the first species that’s really very much like you and me from the neck down.“
Around the time that Homo erectus emerged, spectacular changes were occurring with its foot (e.g., toes were shortening, arch was forming, Achilles tendon), hips (i.e., taller, narrower, twisty that helps us stay stable on two feet), arms (shorter), legs (longer), inner ears (semicirucular canals got larger to balance), joints (got bigger to bear the load of running), and butts!
Butts evolved for running. Lieberman explains that when humans run, the gluteus maximus muscles fires twice with every stride to prevent the trunk from pitching forward and falling face first.
"Running is a controlled fall. Very different from walking. And so your gluteus maximus fires just before your body's about to -- your trunk is about to pitch forward and make you hit your nose on the ground, and it helps pull your trunk backward. And the other time the gluteus maximus fires is when your leg is swinging forward when you're in the air, and it helps decelerate the leg so that you bring your leg down onto the ground. So the gluteus maximus plays a very important role when you're -- when you're running, and turns out to barely be active when you're walking. And, you know, you don't need the fancy equipment in my lab to figure this out. You can just do this yourself at home. Just walk around the room and hold your butt and, you know, clench your kind of butt. And -- and when you're walking your butt will just stay kind of normal, right? It'll stay kind of, you know ..."
But Why Did Homo Erectus Evolve Bigger Butts?
Climate change! That’s what happened about two million years ago. The tree filled jungles were disappearing and being replaced by open grasslands. This was triggered by an ice age that was drying out Africa. These vast open spaces were quickly filling up large grass-eating animals such as the kudu and antelope. Carnivores were rapidly evolving to catch and eat these big food sources such as lions, tigers, and cheetahs.
Compared to these apex predators, Homo erectus was puny and not a good runner. But, Homo erectus could do something they could not do. Homo erectus could sweat! This meant Homo erectus could chase his prey over long distances. He didn’t have to be fast; he simply had to have endurance, pay attention to tracks, and be patience.
Daniel Lieberman explains:
"The trick is you find that animal before it's cooled down, because of course the animal would have run away, and when it runs away it gets hot. Like, when you -- running generates a lot of heat. And these animals aren't very good at dumping heat."
There is a lively, fascinating argument on this episode of RadioLab as to whether Homo erectus tracked and followed its prey to exhaustion or if he simply looked for vultures and other scavengers that an apex predator killed and banded together to scare them away. We don’t know. Probably a little of both. But, the extra protein, fat, and nutrients he got this way helped his brain grow bigger and other evolutionary changes to occur. So, the evolution of a bigger butt and nuchal ligament were pretty important to get to modern human beings.
Man vs Horse
The last half of this episode you just have to listen to… really, you should listen to all of it… I skipped a lot of good stuff. But it is all about a crazy race that takes place in Prescott, AZ every year. It is a high desert long distance race (50 miles) between a group of human runners and a group of horses with riders.
The story goes like this:
HEATHER: So in 1983, a city councilman in Prescott comes into this bar in Whiskey Row, like super-old west America.
MATT: And he gets there, he sits down, and he has a beer. And down at the end of the bar …
HEATHER: There’s a couple of cowboys. The city councilman’s just run a marathon.
MATT: And at some point …
HEATHER: The city council guy says, “I just ran this crazy race.”
MATT: And one of the cowboys says …
HEATHER: “My horse could run that far easily.”
MATT: “You’re not that fast.”
HEATHER: “My horse could do that in an afternoon. Wouldn’t even break a sweat.” And then the city councilman’s like, “You know, I’m not sure he can.”
MATT: “Actually, in fact, I bet I can outrun your horse.”
HEATHER: And for 30-plus years, they have been sort of seeing who’s right.
Matt and Heather follow the racers and it is fantastic, fun story. Who do you think wins? Listen and see!
Recently on The HiddenBrain, I heard Iain McGilchrist talk with Shankar Vedantam about our divided brain and the making of the Western world. Shankar introduces this episode saying:
"I'm Shankar Vedantam. If you type in the words left brain versus right brain on YouTube, it's not long before you'll find yourself in a vortex of weird claims and outlandish hype. (...) For decades, pop psychology books and plenty of YouTube videos have made dramatic claims about people who are left-brained and people who are right-brained. It got to the point that respectable scientists felt they had to steer clear of the study of hemispheric differences. This week we follow the work of a researcher who went there. What he's found is much more nuanced and complex than the story on YouTube. His conclusions, though, might be even more dramatic. He argues that differences in the brain and Western society's preference for what one hemisphere has to offer have had enormous effects on our lives."
The program is called: One Head, Two Brains. I will highlight pieces that really resonated with me. Vedantam begins by highlighting all the pop science and psychology that has emerged over the past 20 to 30 years about the hidden powers of the left or right hemisphere of the brian.
McGilchrist adds: “Well, the conventional model is something that sprang up probably in the ’60s and ’70s and had some life into the ’80s and even into the ’90s and is now, probably, mainly at home in middle-management programs and pop psychology books. And I was told when I got involved in this area – don’t touch it. It’s toxic. Don’t even go there. And basically, that was that the left hemisphere is logical and verbal and the right hemisphere is kind of moody and possibly creative. But all of this turns out to be much more complicated, and some of it’s plain wrong.”
The Brain: SuperComputer or Musical Masterpiece
McGilchrist explains: “In motor terms, (the brain) is fairly straightforward that the left hemisphere controls the right side of the body and receives messages from it and vice versa. But in terms of psychological life, they have quite different kinds of roles. They have quite different dispositions. And I believe evolutionarily, they are – if you like – addressing different questions. (…) It’s there in all mammals, amphibians, reptiles, fish, insects, nematode worms – which have, you know, like – one of them has 302 neurons, but it’s working asymmetrically. And in fact, the oldest creature that we know of that has a neural net of any kind is called nematostella vectensis. It’s 700 million years old, and it’s thought of as the origin of neural networks. Guess what. The neural network is asymmetrical.”
He is adamant the human brain is much more than a biologic computer saying, “(First of all), it’s a vast waste of computing power to have this brain divided into two bits.” His research has revealed that brains have evolved with two different hemispheres to provide living beings with two different views of reality: the right focuses on the big picture, the left focuses on details. Both ways of understanding the world are essential because if you can’t see the big picture, you don’t understand what you’re doing. And if you can’t hone in and focus on the details, you can’t complete the simplest tasks.
McGilchrist provides the example of listening to a piece of music, say Mozart’s Requiem.
McGilchrist explains that “the right hemisphere takes in the whole at the start. The left hemisphere unpacks that and enriches it. But then that work being done, it needs to be taken back into the whole picture, which only the right hemisphere can do.“
All living creatures must do this simultaneously to survive.
Left brain:In order to manipulate the world – to get food, to pick up a twig to build a nest – you need a very precise, targeted attention on a detail in order to be able to achieve that and be ahead of your competition.
Right brain: But if you’re only doing that, and if you’re a bird just concentrating on the little seed, you’ll become somebody else’s lunch while you’re getting your own because you need, at the same time, to be paying the precise opposite kind of attention – not piecemeal, fragmented and entirely detailed but sustained, broad and vigilant for predators and for other members of your species.
In every living being with a complicated brain, the two hemispheres are connected by a bundle of nerve fibers named the corpus callosum; often described as a bridge passing information back and forth between the two hemispheres.
McGilchrist explains: “All living creatures need to be able to attend to the world in two different ways, which require quite different attention at the same time. And this is simply not possible unless they can work relatively independently. On the one hand, in order to manipulate the world – to get food, to pick up a twig to build a nest – you need a very precise, targeted attention on a detail in order to be able to achieve that and be ahead of your competition. But if you’re only doing that – if you’re a bird just concentrating on the little seed, you’ll become somebody else’s lunch while you’re getting your own because you need, at the same time, to be paying the precise opposite kind of attention – not piecemeal, fragmented and entirely detailed but sustained, broad and vigilant for predators and for other members of your species.”
The Master & The Emissary
Where my attention really perked up is when Vedantam and McGilchrist began talking about the title of his book, which comes from an old parable about a wise spiritual master who rules over a land. The master appoints an emissary. He’s a smart messenger. His job is to carry the master’s instructions to the far corners of the land.
McGilchrist recaps this very old story:
This emissary was bright enough but not quite bright enough to know what it was he didn't know. And he thought, I know everything. And he thought, what does the master know, sitting back there seraphically smiling, while I do all the hard work? And so he adopted the master's cloak, pretended to be the master. And because he didn't know what he didn't know, the result was that the community fell apart, essentially.
Sounds a bit like Harry Pottery and the cloak of invisibility; however, what McGilchrist is pointing out with this story is what Vedantam says next: “Iain argues that the right hemisphere of the brain is supposed to play the role of the wise master of our mental kingdom. The left hemisphere is supposed to be the emissary. Iain says we have grown infatuated with the skills of the emissary. We prize the details but scorn the big picture. He makes an analogy about the relationship between the hemispheres.“
McGilchrist stresses the brain is not a computer. It is far more sophisticated; however, in terms of function, he says the left hemisphere, in a limited sense, is a little bit like a very, very smart computer. Like any computer, it collects massive amounts of information, but it does not understand it. To do that, the ability to set back and analyze the interconnections and patterns of the data collected is necessary.
McGilchrist warns that for the first time in the West, we have become enamored with and slipped into listening only to what it is that the left hemisphere can tell us and discounting what the right hemisphere could have told us.
The right hemisphere is the master… the left hemisphere is the emissary. One sees the small picture…the other, the big picture.
See it! Grab It!
McGilchrist says that modern man lives in a world that prizes what the Left Hemisphere of the brain offers while offering contempt for what the Right Hemisphere does. What results is that the emissary usurps the master. However, just like the parable, the Left Brain doesn’t know what it doesn’t know. Adding to this, the realities constructed by each hemisphere of the brain are very different.
McGilchrist gives a very simple example of the types of realities each hemisphere specializes in creating for a living being, particularly, one that using language.
Language has many components. One of them is attending to the tone of voice in which I say something. For example, I can say yes, or I can say yes. I can intone that in probably a dozen different ways with quite different meanings. So for example, I say, it's a bit hot in here. You, using your right hemisphere, know that what I mean is, could we have the door open? Could we put on the air conditioning? But your left hemisphere is wondering, meanwhile, why I'm supplying this quite unnecessary meteorological information.
Because of this, all kinds of things happen. Because of its narrow focus, it doesn't see anything that isn't explicit. It only sees what's right in the center of the focus of attention. And it doesn't understand things that are not said. Often, that's as important as what is said. The way in which it is said, my facial expression, my body language - all of this is lost, as well as the interpretation in the whole picture.
For a person who becomes overly reliant on the functions and abilities of the Left Hemisphere of the brain, metaphor in language is lost.
McGilchrist points out that “this is no small thing because as some philosophers have pointed out, metaphor is how we understand everything. And they point out that, actually, particularly scientific and philosophical understanding is mediated by metaphors. In other words, the only way we can understand something is in terms of something else that we think we already understand. And it’s making the analogy, which is what a metaphor does, that enables us to go, I see, I get it.”
Now, if you think that metaphor is just one of those dispensable decorations that you could add to meaning - it's kind of nice but probably a distraction from the real meaning - you've got it upside down. Because if you don't understand the metaphor, you haven't understood the meaning. Literal meaning, however, is a peripheral, diminished version of the richness of metaphorical understanding. And what we know is the right hemisphere understands those implicit meanings, those connections of meanings, what we call connotations, as well as just denotations. It understands imagery. It understands humor. It understands all of that.
McGilchrist says that the Left Hemisphere is “very goal-driven but very short-term goal driven. It wants to grasp things that are within reach. Remember, the left hemisphere is what controls our right hand with which we grasp things that are within reach. So it has a very direct, linear idea of a target and let’s go and get it.”
McGilchrist beautifully sums up what this extreme focus on details can do to individuals and civilizations when he tells Vedantam this:
Time can be seen rather like the flow of a river, which isn't made up of slices or chunks of river that are then put together. We, as personalities in time or cultures in time, are like this flow. The left hemisphere can't deal with anything that is moving. It fixes things. It likes things to be fixed because then you can grab them. You can't grasp your prey, you can't pick up something unless you can at least immobilize it for that second while you're interacting with it.
So it doesn't like flow and motion, which are, in my view, basic to not just life but actually to the cosmos. So instead, it sees lots of little punctuate moments, little slices of time. And things have to be put together by adding them up.
Vedantam says, “It’s almost like a form of calculus, you know, of taking slices and then trying to integrate them together.”
McGilchrist agrees saying: “You’re absolutely right. And calculus is an attempt, actually, to achieve something which is indivisible by dividing it in slices.”
Two Hemispheres; Two Very Different Sets of Values
Vedantam says that the left hemisphere prefers to reduce moral questions to arithmetic.
McGilchrist tells a story to demonstrate how the Left and Right Hemisphere come up with very different values that translate into very different realities.
Hypothetically, let's say you can temporarily disable the right temporoparietal junction with a painless procedure, and then ask people to solve moral problems. They will give quite bizarre answers to them based on entirely utilitarian understanding of them.
For example is, a woman is having coffee with her friend. She puts what she thinks is sugar in her friend's coffee but it's in fact poison, and the friend dies. Scenario two, a woman is having coffee with her friend who she hates. (Laughter). She wants to poison her. And she puts what she thinks is poison in the coffee, but it's sugar, and the friend lives. Which was the morally worse scenario?
Now, all of us using our intact brains say, well, the one in which she intended to kill her friend. But no. If you disable the right hemisphere, the good old left hemisphere says, well, obviously, the one in which she died. The consequence is what matters. So values are not well-appreciated, I think, by the left hemisphere.
Right Brain Damage
Another example of how the two hemispheres operate and see the world very differently is an exchange between a physician and a patient who experienced right hemisphere brain damage. This example bowled me over! McGilchrist explained that her left hemisphere (the detailed, likes things still and not moving, focusing part of brain) is still intact. The patient has a strange belief about her own arm. We asked a couple of producers to read the exchange.
UNIDENTIFIED PRODUCER #1, BYLINE: (Reading, as physician) Whose arm is this?
UNIDENTIFIED PRODUCER #2, BYLINE: (Reading, as patient) It's not mine.
UNIDENTIFIED PRODUCER #1: (Reading, as physician) Whose is it?
UNIDENTIFIED PRODUCER #2: (Reading, as patient) It's my mother's.
UNIDENTIFIED PRODUCER #1: (Reading, as physician) How on earth does it happen to be here?
UNIDENTIFIED PRODUCER #2: (Reading, as patient) I don't know. I found it in my bed.
UNIDENTIFIED PRODUCER #1: (Reading, as physician) How long has it been there?
UNIDENTIFIED PRODUCER #2: (Reading, as patient) Since the first day. Feel. It's warmer than mine. The other day, too, when the weather was colder, it was warmer than mine.
What we're seeing is a phenomenon called denial, which is a feature of the way the left hemisphere works. So if you have a left hemisphere stroke, so your right hemisphere still functioning, you're very aware of what deficits you have. If you have a right hemisphere stroke, you are completely unaware of there being anything wrong. So if you have a paralyzed left arm, which is often a consequence of right hemisphere stroke, more often than not you will deny that there's any problem with it. If asked to move it, you will say there, but it didn't move.
If, on the other hand, I bring it in front of you and say, whose arm is this, can you move it, they say, oh, that's not mine. That belongs to you, doctor, or to the patient in the next bed or, as in this cut, my mother. It's extraordinary because these are not people who in any way mad. They don't have a psychosis. But they're simply incapable of understanding that there is something wrong here that involves them.
Denial.Denying facts. Denying reality. And creating alternative versions of events. Does any of this sound familiar? Narcissists are particularly good at denial and creating fantastic alternative realities. Perhaps they have become completely stuck in their Left Brain Hemisphere. Sure, narcissists can be highly dynamic people and fun to watch. They count on that affect because they feed on your time, attention, and pocketbooks. Narcissists tend to be extraverts as well and know how to hook and reel in their targets. Such a person likes to be in front and most will lead you (dear admiring follower) right to the Gates of Hell, and then give you a kick inside.
My series Collective Storytelling takes a deep dive into how and why we create alternative reality bubbles, and knowing how the Left Hemisphere works helps to explain why these concocted alternative realities are so convincing–so much so, people are willing to raid the Capitol and die for the alternative facts they have absorbed as the truth created by a master storyteller of anything other than the truth or reality.
Left Brian Damage
McGilchrist says about damage to the left side of brain creates interesting complexities too; however, the structure of reality seems to remain in tact:
It's really fascinating because the consequences are so obvious. You can't speak. And sometimes you can't appreciate the structure of a sentence that's being said to you. The other thing that happens is you can't use your right hand, which is a bit of a bummer if that's your important hand. But effectively, the structure of reality is not changed. That's why it is easier to rehabilitate somebody after a left hemisphere stroke than after a right. The left hemisphere is the one that sees body parts whereas the right hemisphere is the one that sees the body as a whole. It has something called a body image, which is not just a visual image but an integrated image from all senses of the body.
But I've been looking at all the interesting neuropsychiatric syndromes, many of them described by Oliver Sacks, which follow brain damage. And all these quite extraordinary delusional hallucinating syndromes that most people can hardly believe can happen to a human being happen either only or very largely after damage to the right hemisphere, not after damage to the left. So the succinct answer is the left hemisphere is to do with functioning and utilizing - reading, writing and grasping - and it doesn't really deal with the structure of reality whereas the right hemisphere does.
I love Oliver Sacks. I researched and helped the common man and woman understand so much about ourselves and our brains. McGilchrist reminds me of Oliver Sacks and Alan Watts. Here are a few amazing Oliver Sacks interviews. Sadly, he died on August 30, 2015.
Emotion & the Brain
Broadly speaking, the right hemisphere is more emotionally literate. It reads emotional expression, and it gives emotional expressivity to a greater extent than the left. But it's not a simple matter. And some emotions to do with particularly understanding another person's point of view, what it feels like to be that person, are very profoundly connected with the right hemisphere. However, there are some emotions that are more particularly associated with the left hemisphere. Perhaps the most striking one is anger, which happens to be the most lateralized of all emotions. And it lateralizes to the left hemisphere.
So I think it's that the left hemisphere always has an immediate task because it wishes to accomplish. And if it encounters any opposition, it's dismissive, and it becomes enraged. I mean, that's a simplification, but I think it works. And after a right hemisphere stroke, the range of emotions open to somebody is limited. It's mainly irritability and anger.
Music & Humor
Music and humor would not exist without the abilities of the Right Hemisphere. You can listen to HiddenBrain’s discussion of music, I will highlight just a little about what McGilchrist says about humor:
So humor is another example of something very human and very important that the left hemisphere doesn't get. Humor is an example of something else, which is the ability to understand the implicit in poetry. You can't really understand poetry by paraphrasing it any more than you can explain the joke and expect it still to be funny.
And that's very close to my heart because I used to work in the area of English literature. And in brief, I left it partly because I loved poetry too much. And it seemed to me that these internally implicit, unique, embodied creatures - the poems - were being turned into explicit, general and entirely abstract entities. So I thought this was a destructive process. I wrote a book called "Against Criticism" and went off to study medicine and become a psychiatrist!
In a Right Brain Hemisphere world:
The right hemisphere, if it were really without the left hemisphere, would see a lot of connections between things and would see a broad picture, but it might not be so good at focusing on details. Emotionally, the timbre might be somewhat melancholic and sad. Because I think it's one of the aspects, I'm afraid, of the right hemisphere's realism and sympathy, a capacity for empathy, that it does feel suffering. We would not be able to make calculations in the same way. Most arithmetic calculations are made by the left hemisphere.
In a Left Brain Hemisphere world:
There'd be an emphasis on the details, instead. There would be a great emphasis on predictability, organizability, anonymity, categorization, loss of the unique and an ability to break things down into parts but not really see what the whole is like. There'd be a need for total control because the left hemisphere is somewhat paranoid. After right hemisphere damage, people often develop a paranoia, and that's because one can't understand quite what's going on and one needs, therefore, to control it. Anger would become the key note in public discourse. Everything would become black and white.
The left hemisphere needs to be decisive because, don't forget, it's the one that's catching the prey. It's no good at going, well, yeah, it could be a rabbit, but it might not be. It's going to go, I'm going to go for it. So it likes black and white. It doesn't like shades of meaning. So in this world, we would lose the capacity to see grades of difference. We would misunderstand everything that is implicit and metaphorical and have to make rules about how to achieve it.
In the world we live in now, McGilchrist warns:
I think what I observe is an overemphasis on predetermined systems of algorithms. The sense of social alienation. The way in which we live divorced from the natural world, which is a very new phenomenon. The insistence on extreme positions, which is what the left hemisphere understands, not a nuanced argument about the pros and cons of every single thing.
Here’s what we need to shoot for:
I love science. Since a child, I was captivated by science. I depend on science in my work, and I depend on scientific discoveries for my life. The argument in my book, as people have pointed out, is sequential, analytical and rational. In fact, people say is quite a left-hemisphere book. And I say, good, I hope I used both my hemispheres in writing this book because if not, it wouldn't be a very good one. So we need both. And what I feel is that science and reason depend on a balance of these things. There is a distinction to be made between rationality - by which I mean the mindless following out of rationalistic procedures - and what I would call reason - which, since the Renaissance, has been exalted as the mark of a truly educated person, which is to make balanced, informed judgments - but not just informed by data but informed by an understanding in the whole context of a living being belonging to a vibrant society of what this actually means.
In other words, judgment - judgment has been taken out of our intellectual world and replaced by something a machine can do. And that may look good to a certain kind of way of thinking, but I think it's a disaster. The right hemisphere sees the need of the left. That's in the image of the master and the emissary - the master knowing the need for the emissary, the emissary not knowing the value of the master. And if I may use a quotation from Einstein, I think this gives us the full picture - he said that "the rational mind is a faithful servant. The intuitive mind is a precious gift." We live in a society that honors the servant but has forgotten the gift.
Perfect timing! This announcement and our new Youth Poet Laureate’s message could not have aired more synchronistically!
Alexandra Huynh of Sacramento, California is the nation’s new youth poet laureate. The 18-year-old’s appointment was announced Thursday night in a virtual ceremony hosted by Urban Word and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Here & Now learned more about the four laureate finalists on Thursday, and now has more about Huynh and her future plans.
The timing was uncanny. Indeed, it was synchronistic. So, I paid attention. And, I took notes. I will share some of the take aways I gleamed for this important show. If you have been struggling with anxiety and depression, especially this year, this show is well worth a listen.
Between the uncertainties of getting a COVID-19 vaccine, going back to the office and staying connected with one another, it’s no wonder anxiety is on the rise.
As the pandemic recently reached its one-year anniversary, about a third of U.S. adults say they have experienced sleeplessness or anxiety in the last week, according to the Pew Research Center.
We’re talking with Dr. Judson Brewer, a neuroscientist and associate professor at Brown University about the science behind our anxious feelings and explains why common fixes, like simply willing yourself to be okay, don’t work. His new book is Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind.
What’s causing us to feel anxious these days? And how can we treat it?
Dr. Judson Brewer discusses how worry and curiosity are binary functions in the brain. When the brain engages in worry, it cannot engage in curiosity. Worrying makes us feel smaller and contracted while curiosity makes us feel bigger and expansive. Both have evolutionary origins and functions. The problem is how complicated our modern lives have become tricking our brains and causing destructive habits and patterns to develop and become entrenched in the brain.
Dr. Brewer talked about the part of the brain that gets engaged when a person worries. It is an older part of the brain known as the cingulate cortex. This is a critical part of the limbic system and involves a group of interconnected brain structures involved in emotions along with processing emotional destress of pain. It helps us survive.
The Cingulate Cortex
I found this image of the part of the brain that gets engage when we worry while I listened.
Dr. Brewer discusses how the Cingulate Cortex is a much older structure of the brain, making it very powerful in establishing behaviors and patterns in our life. The parts of our brain that get engaged when we become curious are more complex and they also activate and engage the Prefrontal Cortex, which is the newest part of our brains and the weakest.
The Prefrontal Cortex & the Role of Curiosityto Our Wellbeing and Mental Health
Why is the sky blue? Staring up at the big, wide space above their heads, children often ask a variation of this question to an adult. Although the answers may seem clear enough, we’re not always satisfied with what we get. Why we know, or why we care to know about the world around or inside of us is due to a distinct desire: curiosity.
Curiosity motivates us to understand the world, our communities, our bodies, and our brains. Click on the targets in the image to explore how curiosity inspires us to investigate the mechanisms of our daily life.
Dr. Brewer explained how we can strengthen this part of our brain and ability through mindfulness training. Meditation is one part of a bigger circle of learning how to be more mindful in our bodies, especially when we begin to feel to collapsing feeling of worry and anxiety.
Everyone learns habits that get encoded in the brain through the Cingulate Cortex and other lower brain structures. Everyone also has the ability to bring awareness to their situation, both internal (e.g., are you worrying, feeling anxious, feeling fearful) and external (e.g., what triggered this inner feeling [the present], where did this feeling originate from [the past], how valid is this feeling now and moving forward in your life [the future]).
The 3 Gears of Changing Your Brain
Once you bring awareness to your situation, you can begin to remap your responses to them. You can rewire your brain! Dr. Brewer outlined 3 gears to work through that include:
Gear 1: Mapping Habit Loops
Ask yourself what the behavior you are engaging in (e.g., going on social media, over eating, compulsively cleaning, compulsively shopping, binging Netflix, taking mind altering drugs) attempting to help you do. Often these repetitive behaviors are attempting to help you overpower intense, uncomfortable feelings of anxiety, worry, and fear that have become ingrained in patterned repetitive behavior that does not do a good job of calming these feelings. The trigger is less important than the behavior you slip into to calm the rising anxiety and worry. Bringing your awareness to map you habit loops is the first step, the first gear to get yourself out of it.
Gear 2: Mindfulness
This is where you use your ability of awareness to get curious about your behavior: “Hmmm… what am I getting from worrying?” So you realize by becoming curious about your behavior of planning a trip to the airport 20 times isn’t doing anything to keep yourself and your family safe. This insight give you a space to do something different. You can also use mindfulness to practice retrospective reflection as well because sometimes the compulsive behavior is so powerful it is impossible to avert it until you strengthen this other part of your brain: curiosity, mindfulness, and awareness.
Gear 3: The Bigger, Better Offer
This is where you offer your brain a better offer to deal with a situation that triggers anxiety, worry, or fear. Dr. Brewer talks about how we become habituated to compulsive attempts to reduce our anxiety (e.g., ‘Oh, I feel anxious, I am going to look at puppies on the Internet’, soon the brain becomes habituated to puppies and needs a stronger stimulus, so now you need to find puppies and kitten together; then the brain become habituated to puppies and kittens, so now you need to find puppies, kittens, and baby chicks… and so it goes on and on… a compulsive addictive behavior has been established). What the brain does not become habituated to is curiosity! This is the key to get out of the loop.
They were running out of time at this point in the program, so go to Dr. Jud Brewer’s website to learn more:
Have a Great Day! And remember, you are the master of your Ship of Self — go forth and explore new inner territory inside your mind and by doing so, repattern your brain.