There are seven billion humans on this blue world of ours, one of eight in our solar system. We are curious beings, fascinated by the world around us, and that fascination drives us to try and solve the mysteries of the universe. How was it created? Are we alone? Who are we? How are we all defined by this powerful thing known as consciousness; something we all share and that gives us our own desires and dreams.
Psychology tries to answer these questions; why do people feel, think, and behave in the way they do? Who we are is one of the greatest mysteries of our universe, and we are only beginning to understand how to answer it.
Everything that makes us us is located in a small organ sitting atop our heads. The brain is a phenomenal organ, capable of giving us consciousness, emotions, and memory; it is my brain that helps me know how to write this article, and your brain allows you to read and retain it. We have formed a connection through this article, and it’s our brains that give us the power to do that.
Not all beings have brains, and some have more than one – but only humans have achieved that rare quality called consciousness. It’s strange to think that a three pound, slightly grey organ is at the centre of all that thinking, but there you have it. It’s not a particularly pretty organ, but evolution certainly doesn’t have beauty in mind as it molds our bodies (slowly) to fit our environment.
Our brain, full of dips and creases, sits in a pool of liquid, and is divided into two halves (hemispheres) from front to back. But the brain is one organ; the two halves are connected by a bundle of 200 million nerve cells called the corpus callosum – it’s their job to pass messages between the two hemispheres.
Each hemisphere looks like the other, and they have a similar structure – but there are differences in the way they function, allowing them to control different responses. Something that’s relatively well-known is that the left hemisphere controls the right-hand side of the body, and vice versa.
Each hemisphere also control different functions to different degrees; speech, daydreaming, or recognising someone’s face may be more under the control of one hemisphere, so it will dominate the other. Other functions are shared equally by both hemispheres.
The area of our brain that controls speech, for example, is usually located in the left hemisphere; in some, but not all, left-handed people, their area is split between the left and the right. Conversely, both hemispheres play a role in vision; the right hemisphere receives information from the left visual field, and the left hemisphere receives information from the right visual field.
Clearly, not all brains are organised in the same way. Males, especially right-handed males, are more dominant in their left hemisphere than women when it comes to speech. If a man suffers damage in the speech area of his left hemisphere, it has a greater impact on his speech than a woman who suffers similar damage.
Evidence suggests that – generally speaking – the hemispheres are dominant in different areas. The left dominates speech, writing, mathematical ability, logic, and analysis. The right dominates perception, spatial ability, musical and artistic abilities, imagery, and dreaming. The right hemisphere also seems to be more emotional and negative compared to the positive and rational left hemisphere.
There is a surgical procedure that cuts through the corpus callosum; it’s used very rarely (and always as a last resort) when someone has frequent and major epileptic seizures that don’t respond to medication, causing the fits to become very disabling and leaving the person with a poor quality of life. In these patients, epileptic activity starts in one area of the brain and then spreads across the corpus callosum to the other side. By cutting all connections between the two hemispheres, epileptic activity is contained in just one hemisphere. The operation usually leads to a significant decrease in the frequency and severity of the seizures without any apparent interference in normal functioning.
The first researchers who studied this phenomena were confused by the lack of any significant changes in the patients’ behaviour or personality – nor were there any massive differences to intelligence test scores. However, a team led by Roger Sperry in the late 1960s did eventually discover some differences (his work led Sperry to receive the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1981 – the year I was born, apropos of nothing).
Sperry and his team did various split brain experiments on people who’d had the procedure. In one experiment, participants were blindfolded and given objects to explore with their left hand. Information from the left hand goes to the right hemisphere, but speech is generally controlled by the left hemisphere.
The participants couldn’t name the object they were holding in their left hand, even though they could obviously recognise it because they would make appropriate gestures with it (if the object was a key, they would hold it out as though putting it in a lock and turn it). However, when the participant touched the object with their right hand, they could name it instantly.
People with this condition function easily in everyday life because they can move their eyes and make sure that the world around them is available to both hemispheres. Odd behaviours do sometimes occur, especially in the early days after surgery. A patient might find that they button up a shirt with one hand and unbutton it with the other hand, or that their left hand suddenly closes a book they were engrossed in.
‘Heaven’s Gate’ was a cult based in California; specifically, a doomsday cult which merged some elements of Christianity with a belief in UFOs. In March 1997, thirty-nine members of the group, led by Marshal Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles, committed suicide, believing that their souls would transfer to a spaceship hiding behind the Hale-Bopp comet. Most of the cult members had severed contact with their families and sold their worldly belongings. They had committed themselves to a celibate life, with eight of the men undergoing voluntary castration (apparently preparing themselves for a new gender-free life).
Why did these people act like this? Were they brainwashed? Maybe they were weak and vulnerable, making which would make them easy targets for manipulation? Most psychologists recognise a combination of emotional and social factors, and argue that it’s not just at the individual level. Relationships in a cult are often created through an emotional attachment to the group, as well as a fear of the powerful leader, and making members feel dependent on the group. People can be attracted by the security offered by cult membership, where “friends” are around you and you feel cared for and safe.
Identifying with a group promotes a sense of identity, belonging, and self-esteem. This sense of identity is enhanced when we compare people like ‘us’ (the in-group) and people who are different; ‘them’ (the out-group). We all have views of different “in-groups” and “out-groups”; what images come to mind when you think about Essex boys or blonde girls, Christians or atheists, socialists or conservatives, barons or working-class miners?
Each of these gives us a set of mental images; we might even be in some of these different groups, and we will have different mental images whether we are or not. We’ll undoubtedly have a higher sense of pride if we are, and might even feel hostility towards opposing groups.
We are complex beasts; part of the animal kingdom, but with a sense of self (and ego) unknown anywhere else on Earth. No wonder psychology is so intriguing when there is so much about ourselves that we simply don’t understand. How much of what we do is down to our biology, our choices, or our learned behaviours? How much can we influence or change, and how much do we have to learn to live with? Will we ever understand the totality of the human brain? Wouldn’t it be nice?