Saturday, December 19, 2015

A case for the right hemisphere

Recently, my daughter (who is an artist) came home and started talking about how we have two brains, right and left. Other than the difference between our limbic system (the so-called mammalian brain) and our cortex, I had not thought much about the bilateral brain. Carole Brooks Platt has proved me wrong.

Platt’s In Their Right Minds: The Lives and Shared Practices of Poetic Geniuses (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2015) is a cogent and lucid argument for the origin of creativity in the brain. Platt is multi-knowledgeable across various disciplines, including the literary arts, neuroscience and consciousness studies, and psychology. The book offers a fascinating account about how the brain works in terms of inspiration: for some the fine line between transcendence, dreams, and wakefulness, the blurring between oneself and a literary creation. The book is packed with scientific details and biographical information (in a parallel form) about William Blake, John Keats, Victor Hugo, Rainer Maria Rilke, W.B Yeats, James Merrill, David Jackson, Sylvia Plath, and Ted Hughes. Looking to prehistory, Platt notes that we became fully human when our emotional side developed as much as our rational, and with these poets the emotional goes far beyond anything typical.

Of course it’s more complicated than saying the left hemisphere equals language, math, and logic while the right hemisphere equals spatial ability, facial recognition, and visual/musical imagery. So Platt gets down to the individual level, how childhood trauma, mood disorders, and dissociative thoughts act as a springboard for right-hemispheric dominance in some people. The right hemisphere, borrowing from Arthur Koestler (according to Platt), puts thinking aside. So while the left hemisphere produces syntactical speech, the right hemisphere deals with subtleties. Referring to neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, Platt notes that the right hemisphere (contextual perception) sees reality while the left hemisphere (textual detail) interprets reality. Nevertheless, in order to completely understand anything, the right hemisphere is ultimately important.

In terms of these writers dealing with dissociation, Platt covers reincarnation, séances, automatic writing, the Ouija board, telepathy and other paranormal events. Normally I’d be skeptical about all of this, but Platt has convinced me that in line with highly sensitive and creative right-hemispheric individuals these were truly crucial exercises as part of the process in their imaginative output. That is, the metaphorical-driven right hemisphere takes control for those who, because of early trauma (like the loss of a parent), are seeking emotional balance.

I’m not exaggerating by saying this is one of the most remarkable books I’ve recently read. There is a surprising blend of interest in poetic creativity and neuroscience, invaluable for anyone engaged in the making or interpretation of the literary arts. D.H. Lawrence once said something about how Cézanne did not just paint apples but went behind the apples to show us what was there. Platt does not just chronicle the visions of poets and their inspiration but goes behind the scenes of their brains – she shows us how the mind of poetic genius works. While Platt focuses on the writers mentioned above, she is also well versed in many others. The book is a goldmine for the interdisciplinary synthesis of scientific and literary matter related to the brain as a creative mechanism.

- Gregory F. Tague, Ph.D., author of Making Mind: Moral Sense and Consciousness

Copyright©2015 by Gregory F. Tague