February 21, 2005


severed halves, intelligence, wisdom, narrative

There's nothing quite like a solid nine hours of sleep, after being up the previous day on less than four, to make you appreciate just how nice sleep is. A brain that biologically flat-out needs to effectively shut down higher facilities for a third of every day is good evidence of "intelligent design", you know. It couldn't be better designed, you faithless heathens.

But I digress.

As a last-resort type of measure to control really bad seizure-prone brains (and thus the people housing them), the corpos collusum, the major broadband connection between the two hemispheres (there are others, but they're both deeper and "simpler") is mostly severed. Because of those aforementioned parenthetical deeper connections--such as, say, motor coordination between both sides of the body--the procedure can be helpful instead of merely being an exciting modern way of crippling people. The artificial major lesion prevents the seizure activity from spreading across, making it more amenable for the more usual non-last-resort pharmaceutical controls to keep relatively manageable--think of it as a firebreak.

And for the most part, people function just fine afterwards--better, for having health-threatening seizures controlled or at least constrained. But interesting effects pop up under controlled conditions, such as isolating fields of view.

As part of how intelligently the brain is designed, the left eye talks mostly to the right side of the brain, and vice versa. When all the wiring is normal, the whole brain has pretty much full access to the full visual field. But not when the main bridge has been knocked out. In non-clinical conditions, again this isn't a major block, as eyeballs can move around (which given some of the intelligence in the body's design is actually kind of surprising). That being limited, you can isolate each brain hemisphere's access to the visual field.

Neat--and probably a little creepy, if you're emotionally vested in the superficially intuitive, but wrong, idea that a person's consciousness is somehow singular instead of an aggregate of multiple facets and functions--things arise from that. Probably the best known is things like showing an everyday object, a spoon or whatever, to the right brain, and the person knowing what it is he's seeing--but being completely unable to say what it is. This being due to, in most people, the vast bulk of language--and narrative--functions being lateralized into the left side of the noggin.

Even neater than that is this: supposedly, the right side of the noggin can be shown, say, an amusing picture that elicits a grin. Just like aforementioned spoon, the language-making side of the head isn't seeing that picture. Still not seeing it, the person can be asked why it is they grinned all of a sudden--and they'll explain why. The researcher's just funny, asking all these questions. Or they simply remembered a joke they heard earlier that day. Or, etc.

All their language-making cognition is getting is the emotional affect; it lacks the access to (rather relevant) information. What does the mind do when it has to explain something that it lacks relevant information for? It makes up a story--and more often than not, it will most certainly firmly believe it. Sometimes the story is better at convincingly matching available information than others--but that's simply a difference in narrative skill, not a difference in essence.

This isn't something that only pops up because of that unique set of constraints--it is, I'm convinced, how minds work all the time. The very complexity of the world, meeting the necessary abstraction of human senses, means minds never have access to all the information of an arbitrary event's context. Sometimes the missing information is pretty important--if the narrative of why doesn't involve it, that narrative is wrong. But good luck getting the mind to admit it.

A useful definition of intelligence is general skill at noticing and being mindful of the best amount of good available information. A useful definition of wisdom is the skill of being mindful of inherent weaknesses in the whole process.

I do believe that both of these things are skills--people vary in their innate raw capacity for both, but regardless of raw capacity, very few ever really near them. Both can be trained.

posted by Gar @ 11:24 PM

February 16, 2005


pietrisycamollaviadelrechiotemexity, or, WTF?

One of the protagonists in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events is an infant of unusual capacities, name of Sunny. Sunny communicates primarily in one or two nonsense-word bursts, that encode an extremely high amount of meaning for her brother and sister, but almost none for anyone not them. Much of the time, they're little references to other things--when Sunny meets a female poet, she belts out "Sappho!"; just before she squares off in an impromptu swordfight (like I say, unusual capacities), she hollers "Flynn!"--which is one of the charms that make them among my favorite books now. These are usually short little things--word length, you know. A syllable or two.

So it's pretty funny when she announces suddenly, in The Hostile Hospital, "Pietrisycamollaviadelrechiotemexity." Whenever Sunny says something, it's generally followed by an aside to the reader explaining what she meant (her siblings understand already, you see). In this case, it turns out to mean something like "I must admit I have absolutely no idea what's going on."

It is, our narrator Snicket states, only the second time Sunny's ever uttered the word. The first time was the day she was brought home from the hospital after being born, and her siblings and others said hello.

I knew right then and there that was the title of any blog I'd ever write. It's a perfect starting point for any discursive narrative, the core of a healthy skeptical mindset in both its meaning, and the self-awareness that one of the facets of that meaning is a sense of its own absurdity.

"Narrative" is something any reader will see mentioned an awful lot in the kind of entries that'll fall here, as it's a topic I forsee coming back to again and again. It's my contention that human consciousness is in a state of pietrisycamollaviadelrechiotemexity much more often than it isn't. To strain a varyingly-obscure metaphor, it's the liquid form of consciousness; narratives are the solid form. In their worst forms, they act as chunks of ice-nine dropped right into the ocean of a person's soul. When positive, they provide a degree of solid structure that's absolutely needed to actually function. I'll be returning to that metaphor as well.

posted by Gar @ 4:22 AM

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