The View From The Left

This is an ancient review article — about ten years old, judging by the references — but it contains an intriguing insight from split-brain research that I hadn’t encountered before: The right hemisphere remembers stuff with a minimum of elaboration, pretty much as it happens. The left hemisphere makes shit up. Mr. Right just parses things relatively agenda-free, while the left hemisphere tries to force things into context.

The left hemisphere, according to Gazzaniga, looks for patterns. Ol’ Lefty’s on a quest for meaning.

I learned back in undergrad days that our brains see patterns even where none exist; we’re pattern-matching machines, is what we are. But I hadn’t realized that such functions were lateralized. This hemispheric specialization strikes me as a little reminiscent of “gene duplication”: that process by which genetic replication goes occasionally off the rails and serves up two (or more) copies of a gene where only one had existed before. Which is very useful, because evolution can now play around with one of those copies to its heart’s content, and as long as the other retains its original function you don’t have to worry about screwing up a vital piece of a working system. (This is something the creationists hope you never learn, since it single-handedly blows their whole the-mousetrap-can’t-work-unless-all-the-parts-evolve-simultaneously argument right out of the water.) Analogously, I see one hemisphere experimenting with different functions — imagination, the search for meaning— while the other retains the basic just-the-facts-ma’am approach that traditionally served the organism so well.

Anyway, for whatever reason, we’ve got a pragmatist hemisphere, and a philosopher hemisphere. Lefty, who imposes patterns even on noise, unsurprisingly turns out to be the source of most false memories. But pattern-matching, the integration of scattered data into cohesive working models of The Way Things Are — that’s almost another word for science, isn’t it? And a search for deeper meanings, for the reasons behind the way things are — well, that’s not exactly formal religion (it doesn’t involve parasitic social constructs designed to exploit believers), but it is, perhaps, the religious impulse that formal religion evolved to exploit. Which is getting uncomfortably close to saying that neurologically, the scientific and religious impulses are different facets of the same thing.

Yes, all those mush mouthed self-proclaimed would-be reconcilers have been saying that shit for decades. I still bet you never thought you’d read it here.

But bear with. A compulsion to find meaning and order. When there is a pattern to be found, and enough usable data to parse it, the adaptive significance is obvious: you end up using the stars to predict when the Nile is going to flood its banks. If there is no data, or no pattern, you find it anyway, only it’s bogus: thunder comes from Zeus, and Noah surfed a tidal bore that carved out the Grand Canyon in an afternoon. Lefty talks in metaphors sometimes, so even when it gets something right it’s not the best at communicating those insights— but that’s okay, because Mr. Right is just across the hall, unsullied, unspecialized, picking up the slack.

Only what if, now, we’re acquiring data that Mr. Right can’t handle? The Human brain is not designed to parse the spaces between galaxies or between quarks. The scales we evolved to handle extend up or down a few orders of magnitude, losing relevance at each iteration. Are things below the Planck length really, empirically more absurd than those at everyday classical scales, or is it just that brains shaped to function at one scale aren’t very good at parsing the other?

Maybe this is where Lefty really comes into his own. Like the thermoregulating feather that got press-ganged, fully-formed, into flight duty, perhaps the bogus-pattern-matching, compulsive purpose-seeking, religious wetware of the brain is most suited for finding patterns it once had to invent, back before there were enough data available to justify such cosmological pretzel logic. Perhaps the next stage is to rewire Mr. Right in Lefty’s image, turn the whole brain into a lateral-parsing parallel-processor. Perhaps the next stage of scientific enquiry can only be conveyed by speaking in tongues, practiced by colonies of monks whose metaphors must be parsed by the nonconscious modules of Siri Keeton and his synthesist siblinghood. Maybe the future is a fusion of the religious and the empirical.

Of course, the obvious rejoinder is: if all this late-breaking twenty-first-century data is enough to let the religious impulse do something useful for a change, why is it that religious fundamentalists are still such colossal boneheads? Why, if delusion has segued into profound insight, do half the Murricans out there still believe that the universe is six thousand years old? Why do two thirds of them believe in angels?

And the obvious answer is that, appearances notwithstanding, these people are not living in the twenty-first century at all, but the fourteenth. They walk among us locked into a cultural diving bell reeled out along the centuries, hermetically sealed, impervious to any facts or insights more recent than the spheroid Earth (or even older, in the case of at least one ignorant cow on The View). I can only wonder what would happen if somehow that brittle armor were to shatter, if all this real data were to wash over them and somehow penetrate the circuitry that informs their spastic gyrations and religious gibbering. Would they serve up a Theory of Everything? Would the rest of us recognize it if they did?

Probably no, and probably not. It’s just idle speculation, smoke blown out my mind’s ass. Still. Might be a story in it somewhere: the day when religion subsumed science, and It Was Good.

At least no one could accuse me of getting into a rut.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Tuesday October 09 2007at 06:10 pm , filed under just putting it out there..., neuro, science . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

14 Responses to “The View From The Left”

  1. Sounds like a good concept to work on, specially liked the idea of the group of monks speaking tongues, infused me with so much imaginery, from Snow Crash, to Blindsight, to Dresden Codak.

  2. I can see why this might work out the way it did. I imagine the ability to perceive order leads to a psychological drive to put things in orderly terms, because doing so is adaptive. Eventually, this drive becomes very powerful indeed as intellect becomes increasing sophisticated and complex and members of genus Homo continue competing with the intellects of rivals. Now, however, you have the issue of being dependent on the perception of order for healthy mental function, as the powerful urge to perceive order that has been working out so well also causes non-adaptive stress when it actually can’t be done with what you have. This can sometimes be ignored but the smarter people get the more aware they become of how little they actually know.

    At this point you have the conflicting pressures of improving intellect and keeping people sane, and the option of re-evolving the entire mind-structure from scratch isn’t available; you’re stuck with what worked for every other vertebrate that came before you. Solution: Relax the threshold of evidence required for insight enough that people can see order where there is none to keep happy while still seeing the order that is there whenever practical in order to keep on top of things.

    Then all of a sudden homo sapiens sapiens comes around, someone invents agriculture only 130,000 years afterwards, and the last thing you remember after that shakeup was blinking and all of a sudden there are humans poking around on Luna.

    What I’m suggesting is basically that excessive pattern matching might not actually be inherent to pattern matching system in general, but that excessive pattern matching in humans, at least in regards to discerning the grand scheme of the universe, was added after the fact to a system without such problems in order to accommodate the psychological well-being of thinking organisms who were intelligent, but not intelligent enough to go from hunter-gatherer to quantum physicist in a single lifetime, thus guaranteeing that efforts towards following the primal drive to impose order and understanding would be met almost exclusively with chaos and mystery.

    All that changed when retention of detailed and complex knowledge became possible, as understanding could then be built up across generations bit by bit. Cue today, when the world is a fundamentally less mysterious place for the average human. (Those working at the cutting edge still think things are pretty mysterious, of course, but even they now generally perceive the world as fundamentally knowable, even if they don’t know it just yet, or even if they are not able to know it.) As such, an intelligent organism driven to impose order and understanding could be quite satisfied in the modern world, but humans haven’t evolved much in such a world as this and so retain the overly-eager pattern matching systems that are not as adaptive for this environment as a stricter system would be.

  3. Oh yeah, and The Orange Box goes live in 3 hours. Will you be thinking with portals?

  4. See, now this is why I read this blog. Left-brain/right-brain synthesis, ranks upon ranks of gnoso-glossiolating monks, automatic science if you like 😀

    PS
    Man, Portal seems to be fucking crazy and way out of my mental league. I was mentally blocked on Tetris for Random Deity’s sake; how the hell am I supposed to cope with custom sidesteps behind the scenes of three-dimensional spacetime?

  5. Kick the fundies in their heads hard enough and maybe a few will survive and won’t become vegetables, keeping their intellects intact, but with their religious cargo jettisoned outside their ears.
    Sounds like a plan.

    I hereby announce its name: “Fundie Stomping Day”.

  6. What causes someone to have a stronger left/right brain? Or is that even possible with the lateral-parallel- processor model you mentioned? What side is responsible for the balance and choice of the two sides? I often contemplate things on a philosophical level but I also often don’t care. I don’t believe most things I read/hear/see until I can see the numbers add up. My thought process is most certainly not a product of my environment, so what gives !!

  7. PS: Why are you watching The View?

  8. andrew

  9. Nothing ‘remembers stuff pretty much as it happens’ it’s all constructed and an interpretation. We begin processing info in the retina and dont stop.

    But it makes sense that the left hemispere is searching for originality rather than using the relatively tried and tested ways of seeing the world.

  10. Interesting thoughts Peter.

    I was exposed to a lot of poorly-informed left-brained/right-brained/hare-brained dreck during my education as an artist.

    My highschool art teacher was adamant that all art came from the right hemisphere. I’m sure she got the idea from a book called “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”, which remains hugely popular, despite its gimmicky nature. It’s a decent book for learning to draw from observation, but the science in it is hell of dubious.

    Said teach was also certain that human eyes actively emitted light while alive, which is why only living people had a “twinkle in their eye.”

    I tried to explain to her that living eyes were wet, and prone to catching specular highlights, but she’d have none of it.

    Incidentally, I just finished my first pass through that Metzinger book you recommended in the notes for Blindsight. Heavy shit, for sure, but the case studies are fascinating. I’ll have to slog through it again sometime and try to pick up more of the theory itself.

  11. http://www.news.com.au/heraldsun/story/0,21985,22556281-661,00.html

    Optical illusion supposedly to determine brain hemisphere preference.

  12. I think evelyn meant this thing.

    The article itself is rubbish, but it’s still cool how the figure seems to switch directions every time one glances away. It’s the hopping off the floor that does it — you can’t tell the direction of rotation from the relative height of the feet, which would (I assume) be the normal cue.

  13. Sorry, had my browser’s font too large, evelyn had included the full URI, I just couldn’t see the end of it because Blogger’s spacings are fixed width and deal poorly with long lines of text.

  14. “Would they serve up a Theory of Everything?”
    I don’t believe it. 😉

    Scientists Speak Up on Mix of God and Science (August 2005)
    Searching for God in the Brain (October 2007)