Dichotomies such as left brain vs. right brain are understood to be interesting concepts, but too simplistic in describing what is an unbelievably complicated and still very mysterious organ: the brain. Of course, it’s the brain itself doing the studying, in an ongoing “know thyself” effort that is profoundly human.
The left/right brain dichotomy is fun for games and parlor tricks, such as this test of the turning dancer. Do you see the silhouette revolving clockwise or counterclockwise? I always see it clockwise and cannot ever reverse it, no matter how hard I try.
Supposedly, this makes me strongly right-brained, intuitive and feeling and artistic rather than logical and and mathematical and linear. But most of the other facile internet tests I’ve taken—and I’ve taken quite a few—tend to put me squarely in the “in-between” category, evenly balanced between left and right brain, which feels just about right to me.
Oops, I said “feel.” Too right-brained. Let me regroup: my analysis of my life history suggests that I have an unusual balance between the right and left hemispheres of my brain.
There, that’s better. And appropriate, I suppose, for one such as I, who’s looked at political life from both sides now.
The left/right brain theories were hatched from studies of people who had various sorts of brain injury. But the undamaged brain really works as a whole, and there is a great of communication between the two halves. Research appears to show that the more important differences between the sides involve processing, with the left attending to details and the right integrating the big picture. And individual variations in the location of different centers of function abound.
What’s more, the brain is surprisingly—and most wonderfully—plastic. When injury occurs, other areas can often take over. That’s why it can be possible for people such as my mother to recover in whole or part from a stroke, and why the course of a person’s recovery is unpredictable.
I’ve often wondered whether my mother’s unusual left/right history has contributed to the fact that her stroke recovery has been relatively good. My mother is naturally left-handed; she used to play tennis and do all her strength activities with her left hand. But she was born in an era in which lefties were forcibly switched, and so as a very young child she had to learn to write and eat with her right hand. This caused no end of grief; if you were to ask her about it even now, she’d let you know how difficult it was and how it caused the lifelong problems she has (always good for a gentle teasing) in telling left from right.
I have my doubts about my mother’s theory. I think that she may just naturally have a brain with less lateralization than is the norm. There’s a certain scientific basis for this notion of mine—it turns out that approximately 20% of lefties have language functions on both sides of the brain.
Righties are far more predicable in that respect; their language functions are almost always located in the left hemisphere. As a proudly unchanged lefty myself (I want to make it clear I’m talking about handedness, not politics), I have no idea whether I have language on the right side of the brain, as approximately 60% of lefties do; or on the left, resembling approximately 20% of lefties; or bilaterally, as previously mentioned. I do know that I’ve always had a knack for integrating the intuitive and the rational, the body and the mind, the creative and the linear.
I’ve also always been interested in news of brain function, as well as research on brain and body laterality. And so this article on the relation between a rare disease known as FTD, or frontotemporal dementia, and artistic ability, caught my eye (the laterality involved in this disease is not the common right/left brain dichotomy, however, it’s front/back).
The piece explores the case of Dr. Anne Adams, a Canadian scientist who became an artist as she was developing her brain problems. She became fascinated with the music of the composer Maurice Ravel, especially his “Bolero,” and painted a complex work based on that score.
It is probably not coincidental that, when composing “Bolero,” Ravel (unbeknownst to Dr. Adams, and to Ravel himself) was in the early stages of the same rare disease that was later to hit Adams. Both were attracted to repetition and order, says FTD expert Dr. Bruce Miller:
‘Bolero’ is an exercise in compulsivity, structure and perseveration,” Dr. Miller said. It builds without a key change until the 326th bar. Then it accelerates into a collapsing finale.
Dr. Adams, who was also drawn to themes of repetition, painted one upright rectangular figure for each bar of “Bolero.” The figures are arranged in an orderly manner like the music, countered by a zigzag winding scheme, Dr. Miller said. The transformation of sound to visual form is clear and structured.
Some of Dr. Adams’ work can be found at at this site. It demonstrates those qualities of order and structure, as well as repetition.
The paintings vary quite a bit in their artistic appeal. For example, there’s this, which I rather like and find pleasantly decorative:
And this, which I don’t much care for:
The wonder, though, is that this ability in Dr. Adams was previously unexpressed prior to her developing the progressive dementia which later killed her. She had previously “dabbled” in drawing when young, but now it took on an obsessive and driven quality. Dr. Miller has an explanation for the change in abilities and motivation:
We now realize that when specific, dominant circuits are injured or disintegrate, they may release or disinhibit activity in other areas. In other words, if one part of the brain is compromised, another part can remodel and become stronger.”
Thus some patients with FTD develop artistic abilities when frontal brain areas decline and posterior regions take over, Dr. Miller said.
It’s a sort of figure-ground effect. Dr. Adams lost a lot, but at least she gained something in return, although I can’t say it seems to have been a fair exchange. Her art obviously meant a great deal to her, however, and I hope it helped sustain her and her family through the long years as the going got rougher, and then rougher still.
Here’s an excerpt from Dr. Miller’s study involving Anne. You will notice there is hard data to underscore the development of other regions of her brain as some of them atrophied:
Paintings from AA’s artistic peak revealed her capacity to create expressive transmodal art, such as renderings of music in paint, which may have reflected an increased subjective relatedness among internal perceptual and conceptual images…Later paintings, achieved when AA was nearly mute, moved towards increasing photographic realism, perhaps because visual representations came to dominate AA’s mental landscape during this phase of her illness. Neuroimaging analyses revealed that, despite severe degeneration of left inferior frontal-insular, temporal and striatal regions, AA showed increased grey matter volume and hyperperfusion in right posterior neocortical areas implicated in heteromodal and polysensory integration. The findings suggest that structural and functional enhancements in non-dominant posterior neocortex may give rise to specific forms of visual creativity that can be liberated by dominant inferior frontal cortex injury.
As a right/left sort of person, I like to make connections between the arts (especially poetry) and other aspects of life, as you may have noticed from previous reading here. So I’ll close with an excerpt from the Wordsworth poem “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.”
Wordsworth speaks of the loss of the simple joy in nature he felt as a child, and tries to find other compensations and comforts:
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering…
We have no way of knowing, but it is certainly possible that Dr. Adams may have gained back some of that “splendor in the grass”—at least, visually—as she lost her ability to communicate in words. In another part of the poem, Wordsworth speaks of the “soul’s immensity.” Stories such as Dr. Adams’ tell not only of the human brain’s mysterious and unpredictable plasticity, but the immensity of that far more mysterious enitity—the human soul.
[NOTE: Here's another story of a remarkable brain-damaged individual.]