Day 2: Of two minds

Followup to: Room for one more?

24-25 Aug 2010

I woke up around 1:00 PM and took 2 piracetam and choline, and again at 8:00 PM and 3:00 AM. Falling asleep last night seemed faster and easier than usual, as if I was able to actually focus on it instead of being distracted. Waking up was interesting - usually there's something of a haze of confusion when I immediately wake up, which I'm sure is normal. This time, it almost seemed like I had some level of conscious awareness that was already active as soon as I woke up. It was nothing like an "instant-on" effect, but there was some kind of greater clarity and ease of thought available when I would usually still be half-asleep.

Or maybe I was just imagining it.

I went out for dinner with my family today, and worked at the gallery for a bit. I finally got the papers for a custodial investment account that's apparently supposed to be my college fund - it has about $100 in it. I listened to the new Katy Perry album, which actually isn't that bad. Maybe I was just in a better mood today, but I wasn't really irritated about anything. I napped from around 9 PM to 1, and had some dreams, but not especially memorable ones.

Did you know there's actually a procedure to remove a whole half of the brain, in cases of intractable epilepsy where the problem lies in one hemisphere? (They don't actually remove the hemisphere itself anymore, only disconnecting it, but the effects are the same.) It's only performed in early childhood, while the brain is still plastic enough for the remaining hemisphere to take over the functions of the lost half. Most patients are still able to develop almost normally in terms of intelligence, memory, learning ability, personality and general cognition.

What is the inner experience of having half of your brain removed like? Rather than being sedated, what would it be like to be conscious as this happened - and what would happen to your consciousness? (Again, this isn't completely hypothetical - at 14, Ahad Israfil suffered a gunshot wound that destroyed one of his hemispheres; he regained consciousness hours later and attempted to speak, and eventually made a full recovery without significant mental impairment.)

If one of your hemispheres is taken out of your head, it would seem that your consciousness persists in the remaining hemisphere - whatever radical shifts you may experience in your own consciousness as half of your brain is removed, your perceptual awareness would continue in the other half. You're still there: "you" would still be in that half. Right?

Hemispherectomy diagram 1

And yet, not counting any significant differences that may be present in a hemisphere heavily affected by seizures, if the other half was left in and the opposite hemisphere was removed, you would apparently experience that same continuity of consciousness (regardless of how you might be changed by losing one half rather than the other).

Hemispherectomy diagram 2

If this is possible, and both hemispheres are equally capable of independent consciousness, what would happen if one hemisphere was preserved and simply transplanted into a duplicate of your body? Where would "you", your unified consciousness, continue to? One half or the other?

Hemispherectomy diagram 3

More importantly, if both hemispheres can maintain your consciousness (albeit in an altered form), what does a removed and discarded hemisphere experience: loss of perceptual awareness, then loss of consciousness, then death? What if "you" were actually located in the discarded hemisphere - not the one still in your head?

Hemispherectomy diagram 4

I suspect that this question could be resolved with a more complete understanding and definition of what consciousness is, assuming it can be resolved. I'm gonna go listen to Katy Perry.

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14 responses to Day 2: Of two minds

  1. Tilly says:

    There is a science fiction book that I really like called "Blindsight" by Peter Watts, the main character had that procedure done to cure his childhood epilepsy and it was very interesting. I don't know how accurately the symptoms and effects were portrayed but I thought it turned into a fascinating exploration of what consciousness is and how it connects (or often doesn't connect) with morality. You mind find it interesting.

  2. Aaron says:

    It would be almost like the brain has a redundant backup of your consciousness.

  3. James Rowland says:

    Here's the big flaw in this: The cerebral hemispheres are NOT capable of independent consciousness. There are other structures in the brain. Damage to some of those structures is invariably associated with loss of consciousness.

    The transplanted second hemisphere would need another host mid and hind brain (and good luck wiring it up to be compatible with the development of the old one.) The resulting mind might be substantially different from the original. Sure, procure an exact clone of those other parts and it'll be closer, but if you can do that why not clone the whole brain?

    It's still a fascinating thought experiment. However, I suspect taking one module of the brain out and asking if it's "you" isn't actually a well-conceived question: If the mind is what the brain does, that "you" in question is a *process*, not an object. (Note: I am NOT proposing dualism here, merely pointing out the difference between function and the mechanism that implements it.)

    • Michael Lewis says:

      I'm with you for the most part. What a lot of people fail to realize is that the debate as to what "you" is is still going on today. It's not necessarily your mind.

      I'd have to learn more about the issue, such as what the effects on memory and self awareness are from having your brain divided, before I take a stance on it.

  4. Jim Jasion says:

    Wonder how your mind on these supplements might process some jazz?

    What is this thing called Love - Charlie Mingus - Billy Taylor - 1950

    Hot House ( Tadd Dameron - based on chord changes of What is this thing called Love)
    Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie - 1945

    Laura - 2010 - ( Piano solo by youtube channel 7notemode )

    Fletcher Henderson - Coleman Hawkins - 1933 - Queer Notions

    Chelsea Bridge - Billy Strayhorn - Read up on his life - you'll be surprised. He's us.

    Jim Jasion

  5. veo says:

    All this pondering is based upon the concept that the human consciousness is, at some level, a base 'unit' complete within itself. This however is a flawed perception as far as I'm concerned. I subscribe to the idea that human thinking is carried out by countless independent small sensory processes running in a massively parallel biologic processing unit (the brain) the gestalt of which is the emergence of a sense of 'self' but in reality our consciousness is really propped up by all these millions of background processes and cannot be divided so cleanly. If you chop out half of your brain, or severe the Corpus Callosum, or experience massive brain trauma in other ways, those background processes adjust due to the physical change and your sense of 'self' will adjust accordingly as well. You'd still experience yourself as a liner being, but something will have changed and you won't be able to pinpoint what it was.

    Have you read any Douglas Hofstadter? If not, you're really doing yourself a disservice. His seminal work on awareness and self is "Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid" and it deals with this exact topic, although it's pretty old at this point. I'd also recommend his updated version "I am a Strange Loop" which just came out a few years ago. Google those books to find out what they're about, it's pretty fascinating.

    On Amazon I saw a reviewer summarize some of his ideas like this, and I really like it:

    "Every living thing has in it some representition of the outside world. A plant has in some sense a representation of the sun, that allows it to bend towards it. A bacterium moving along a gradient of nutrients contains within it a representation of this source of nutrition. A bee has representations of hive, flower, sun, and other concepts that guide it goal-seeking behavcior. And so on, up the evolutionary line. When that representation become complete and complex enough to include itself, that is the birth of consciousness."


  6. BYTE-Smasher says:

    I think the bigger question is: Will we ever manage to pull off a complete body transplant successfully? Trying to get the brain to reorient when placed in a new body, without having all the same nerves going to the same places, seems like it would be quite the feat. Just consider the massive amount of rehabilitation people with reattached limbs must go through: 16 months in one case I was reading about; and those nerves are reconnected in relatively the right places.

  7. Adam says:

    ZJ, where are you getting your piracetam and choline? I want to try some.

  8. Kirsten says:

    Geeze... Where can I get some of this? Maybe if I take it my mind will stop being so preoccupied with boys, and I'll start thinking more intelligently!

  9. I love how your mind works! All minds are unique, but yours is def. very special. Anyway... I think that the human brain is a self-preserving entity all in of itself. I have heard many horror stories about brain injury and 'miracles' seem to be very common in recovery stories. My question would be: If both halves can take over for the other, why did we evolve a redundancy? Why was it an evolutionary necessity for this ability? Was is that our brutal past as lower homonids were so brutally violent that it helped in the survival of key persons, to allow the sharing of genetic material, supporting the idea that bravery and combat experience was beneficial to our species? Therefore allowing severe brain trama to be survivable, to the point of full active recovery? Very interesting ZJ... PLease lemme know if I am just an idiot with this question...THANX

    • DeHerg says:

      No I was asking myself the same question. This redundancy is especially interesting since our brain uses up quite some of our bodies resources(25% of blood glucose and 20% of our oxygen)-->meaning not developing one of the hemispheres would have been a significant nutritional advantage while the disadvantages seem quite minimal in terms of conscious ability´s. So either the higher survivability of brain damages was a significantly bigger factor in earlier times or just developing one (centered)hemisphere would have been to much of a genetical leap to come around (...or another reason).

  10. Anonymous says:

    I pondered this same notion when I first heard that they could remove hemispheres of your brain. I have also wondered, if they disconnect the hemispheres of your brain from each other, but allow them both to stay connected to the rest of your body, would you think any differently? That is to say, would you still be able to control both halves? And if you couldn't control both halves, what would the one that you couldn't control be able to do?

    • Michael Lewis says:

      I covered this topic in philosophy of mind in university. You won't "think differently" in the sense that before the procedure you were a capitalist and after it you're a communist or anything like that. However, there are some fascinating experiments I read about that showed that though a person with a split brain seems normal to everyone, including themselves, there are subtle changes in ability (for example, if you cover one eye and show the other eye a picture, and then ask them to write what the picture is of with their hand on the opposite side of their working eye (forgive me, I can't remember which side this worked for), then they can't do it because the part of the brain responsible for communication and the part responsible for processing visual information are not in the same part of the brain).

  11. Rex Havoc says:

    Top of the list of instructive reading on the subject of the bicameral brain is Julian Jaynes' seminal book 'The Origin of Consciousness In The Breakdown Of The Bicameral Mind' Although he developed his model of consciousness in the late 60's, he still has the best explanation for the structure of the brain and its connections to the development of sapience.

    Jaynes' model has also been used in a number of sci-fi and pop culture references, such as Neal Stephenson's 'Snow Crash.'

    If you're interested in neuro-biology, Jaynes is a must-read.

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