In all of my blogs so far, I have been emphasizing the right hemisphere’s role in religious ideation, poetry, anomalous experiences, mental and developmental disorders and, especially, creativity. I think it is important at this point to make a caveat, which Iain McGilchrist, former Oxford literary scholar, now a doctor, psychiatrist and writer, stated so well in the introductory remarks to his exhaustive study of left and right-hemispheric differences:
". . . only 5 per cent of the population overall . . . are known not to lateralise for speech in the left hemisphere. Of these, some might have a simple inversion of the hemispheres, with everything that normally happens in the right hemisphere happening in the left, and vice versa; there is little significance in this, from the point of view of the book, except that throughout one would have to read 'right' for 'left', and 'left' for 'right'. It is only the third group, who it has been posited, may be truly different in their cerebral lateralisation: a subset of left-handers, as well as some people with other conditions, irrespective of handedness, such as, probably, schizophrenia and dyslexia, and possibly conditions such as schizotypy, some forms of autism, Asperger's syndrome and some 'savant' conditions, who may have a partial inversion of the standard pattern, leading to brain functions being lateralised in unconventional combinations. For them the normal partitioning of functions break down. This may confer special benefits, or lead to disadvantages, in the carrying out of different activities (McGilchrist, 2009, p. 12)."
So, yes, my interest lies in people with atypical lateralization, i.e. McGilchrist's "third group": those born with more symmetrical hemispheres, making the right more dominant than normal or those with unusual combinations of functions within a single hemisphere that should be constrained to only one. It is this small, but highly significant 5%, with their pronounced link to certain types of creativity, which is indeed my home base.
McGilchrist further delineates why these genetic variations, potentially dangerous for an individual mind or for procreation, might continue to be passed on genetically in the general population:
This may be the link between cerebral lateralisation and creativity, and it may account for the otherwise difficult to explain fact of the relatively constant conservation, throughout the world, of genes which, at least partly through their effects on lateralisation, result in major mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and manic-depressive psychosis (now known as bipolar disorder), and developmental disorders, such as autism and Asperger's syndrome. It may also be associated with homosexuality, which is thought to involve a higher than usual incidence of abnormal lateralisation. Such genes may, particularly in the case of mental illness, be highly detrimental to individuals, and have an impact on fertility for the population at large – and would therefore have been bred out long ago, if were not for some hugely important benefit that they must convey. If they also, through their effects on lateralisation, in some cases led to extraordinary talents, and if particularly they did so in relatives, who have some but not all of the genes responsible, then such genes would naturally be preserved, on purely Darwinian principles (Ibid., p. 13).
So, what I am saying, based on new research emerging in this fascinating field of atypical lateralization, is that while right- or some form of mixed-hemispheric functional lateralization for language can be detrimental to your health (mixed, more than extreme right), it can also push you to found a new religion, be a leader, write epic poetry, have a phenomenal photographic memory, artistic or musical talents; it can also make you believe in ghosts and spirits and have mediumistic powers of telepathy and prophecy. The atypical lateralization model helps explain so many of the unusual happenings in our species' past and helps us go forward into the future, with an understanding heart and an open mind, plus more appreciation for diverse brains and their potential for creativity.
All of the poets I study fit into the 5% by virtue of their genes and their traumatic experiences, which gave them their affinity to the occult, their actual paranormal experiences, their emotional disorders, and/or gay orientation. Like in the development of religions, which relied on the previous stories of their predecessors, so will the poets depend on theirs, while upping the ante with their own novelty in an effort to supplant them.
Previc (2006) makes an impressive argument for a neurochemical predisposition that links profound religious experience to the left hemisphere. But he does not mention poetry, so often intertwined with religious expression, which is right-hemispheric language (see Jaynes, 1976; Kane, 2004). Rather, he focuses on the difference between left-hemispheric visionary or auditory experience in extracorporeal (outside of the body) space vs. peripersonal (near the body) experiences mediated by the right hemisphere. The neurochemicals involved are respectively dopamine and acetylcholine on the left and noradrenalin and serotonin on the right. (In more ways than one, the left-hemisphere and the right can almost be said to house the male vs. the female inside us, making the Tao and Jungian psychology almost palpable.)
In contrast to Previc, I am writing about poetic geniuses who were highly verbally fluent and prone to right-hemispheric language and the occult through genetic predisposition and traumatic experiences (Platt, 2007). Except for Sylvia Plath, who did suffer from mania, especially in her final weeks, they did not suffer from the disorders Previc identified with excessive religiosity and the left hemisphere: mania, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), schizophrenia and temporal-lobe epilepsy (TLE). Rather than gazing upward in a dopamine-mediated ecstatic vision of a mystic, my poets sat at their séances, stretching out their hands and lower their eyes toward their Ouija boards or tables. Connecting with a partner or other séance sitters, they disengaged the controlling prefrontal cortex, synchronized their hemispheres within themselves and with their partners, and waited for the dead or divine "spirits" to spell out their dissociative messages (Platt, 2009).
The same disengagement occurs in dreaming, allowing all sorts of unchecked creativity to occur, which definitely seems to be coming from "other" than the self. A recent article in Scientific American Mind says that:
Well over half of visual artists said that they had used dreams in their work. About half of fiction writers had. The numbers dropped off rapidly as the professions became more abstract. Within the sciences, inventors, engineers and others who benefit from visualizing problems in three dimensions were likelier to report helpful dreams. . . . Solutions frequently came from a dream character—one computer programmer got repeated nocturnal lessons from Albert Einstein—and people had trouble taking full credit for what their dreaming mind had done (Barrett, 2011, p. 32).
On the other hand, in lucid dreaming, the frontal cortex remains active as though awake. In fact, in this unusual dream state you are both awake and asleep at the same time, making it possible to consciously summon wise dream characters to provide instruction (Voss, 2011). In a previous post, "Hearing the Voice, Getting it Right," my guru, a madman on a psychiatrist's couch, came unheralded, stoked in the fire of a highly emotional reading before I went to bed. I don't know if anyone has studied this, but perhaps the atypically lateralized are more likely to be able to dream lucidly. (I have had a few lucid dreams myself; my sister, Janice, bathed in the same gene pool, is an expert lucid dreamer, as is her husband, and they have written a book together, The Conscious Exploration of Dreaming.)
Shamans receive wisdom from discarnate sources as well. They also have genetic atypical lateralization, along with a traumatic initiation into their profession. Their methods involve plants with psychotropic properties to attain altered states of consciousness with speaking entities. Their special powers of mind, which, from the evidence, seem to include great intuition, telepathy and prophecy, allow them to lead ritualistic ceremonies, bringing groups of initiates together. They may be wounded healers, but they are certainly not psychotic. EEG studies have shown synchronizing patterns in their frontal cortex. They may not be writers either, but they can be magnificent artists of their own visionary experiences and "may have been humanity’s first physicians, magicians, artists, storytellers, timekeepers and weather forecasters" (Kaplan, 2006, p. 1, citing Krippner 2002.) For a beautifully written, first-hand account of the Ayahuasca experience, read The Shaman and Ayahuasca; for an extremely thorough, thought-provoking look from a biological, psychological and social perspective read Michael Winkelman's book cited below.
Unfortunately, comprehensive studies on atypical right-hemisphere language dominant subjects are few and far between. Almost any time you start reading an abstract from a neuroimaging study, it starts: "Fifty right-handed subjects were tested . . ." Say no more. Nonetheless, I believe interest in anomalous minds is beginning to manifest. Simon McCrea’s work on "intuition, insight and the right hemisphere" is an example. He says that intuition is immediate and nonverbal, whereas insight requires voracious study, incubation, the "aha" moment, then conscious elaboration. Both are advantaged in right-hemisphere dominant individuals and women seem to be better at it. Being a left-handed, right-dominant female (judging by my anomalous experiences, my strengths and weaknesses and the way I hold a writing instrument), I offered up my brain to a local, highly regarded neuroscientist for imaging. I'd like to make a direct contribution to the field beyond my armchair analyses. Unfortunately, that email went unanswered.
Barrett, Deirdre, (2011), "Answers in your Dreams," Scientific American Mind, Nov-Dec: 27-33.
Brooks, Janice E. & Jay A. Vogelsang 1999/2000), The Conscious Exploration of Dreaming: Discovering How We Create and Control Our Dreams. Foreward J. Allan Hobson, M.D.
Campos, Don José, Ed. Geraldine Overton, (2011), The Shaman and Ayahuasca. Studio City, CA: Divine Arts.
Jaynes, Julian (1976), The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Kane, Julie (2004), "Poetry as Right-Hemispheric Language." Journal of Consciousness Studies, 11 (5-6): 21-59.
Kaplan, Robert M. (2006), "The Neuropsychiatry of Shamanism." Before Farming, 4 (13): 1-14.
Krippner, Stanley (2002), "Conflicting perspectives on shamans and shamanism: Points and counterpoints." American Psychologist, 57 (11): 962-978.
McCrea, Simon M. (2010), "Intuition, insight, and the right hemisphere: Emergence of higher sociocognitive functions." Psychology Research and Behavior Management, 3: 1-39.
McGilchrist, Iain (2009), The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Mind and the Making of theWestern World. New Haven and London: Yale UP.
Platt, Carole Brooks (2007), "Presence, Poetry, and the Collaborative Right Hemisphere." Journal of Consciousness Studies, 14 (3): 36-53.
Platt, Carole Brooks (2009), "The Medium and the Matrix: Unconscious Information and the Therapeutic Dyad." Journal of Consciousness Studies, 16 (9): 55-76.
Previc, Fred H. (2006), "The role of extrapersonal brain system in religious activity." Consciousness and Cognition, 15: 500-539.
Voss, Ursula (2011), "Unlocking the Lucid Dream," Scientific American Mind, Nov-Dec: 33-35.
Winkelman, Michael (2010), Shamanism: A Biopsychosocial Paradigm of Consciousness and Healing, 2nd Ed. Santa Barbara, CA, Denver, CO, Oxford, England: Praeger.