Thursday, May 15, 2008

Split wide open

"It is widely known that we have two sides to the brain,...."

That is how I wanted to begin, but instead I think I shouldn't .....

"I know, my dear Watson, that you share my love of all that is bizarre and outside the conventions and humdrum routine of everyday life."

There are ways to describe intelligence, creativity & all that jazz. People have come up with amazingly subjective explanations like, he is so intelligent he practically taught himself calculus at age 13; or he is so creative that no one had to teach him to paint & he became an impressionist. There are variants to these sentences thrown around by parents & peers alike to describe a relative measure of intelligence or creativity. But underneath it all, is nothing but an organized pattern of neurons. How they network is the cream of some other argument.

A professor Allan Snyder of the University of Sydney, has made a very compelling research in the dominance of left hemisphere over the right & right over the left. All he does is, use Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (in human words, temporarily numbing a region of the brain with the help of strong magnetic fields disrupting the usual circuitry in that region). This is an ingenious technique to study the effect of dominance of the regions of the brain. For instance, his primal argument is that everybody is a born genius, we just grow into ordinary people (or not).

As it is known, the right hemisphere usually handles the creative (read, abstract) half of the thought whereas the left hemisphere deals with the logical (read, mechanical or deductive) half of the thought. But is also observed, that as we grow up, we are molded into a thought pattern which ideally decides whether we become left brained or right brained i.e. more inclined towards towards logical reasoning or more inclined towards abstract reasoning, or quite possibly both.

What Snyder does with his experiments is, he asks a subject to draw any sketch, as accurate as they can, of some object which the subject has commonly seen or know of. For instance, a Horse. The subject using his normal, regular faculties of drawing, draws a picture on a piece of paper. After a 45 minute (totally harmless) magnetic numbing of the left brain, the subject is asked to re-draw the same object on another piece of paper. What professor Snyder found was remarkable & truly amazing. He observed that the sketch made before was just a play of lines to construct a similar looking object on the paper, whereas the sketch made after the numbing of the left brain was a far more detailed and close to accurate representation of the thing being drawn (by the same person). He also conducts other memory tests & tests which are used to determine creative potential. These custom made tests also concluded that the creative score tips considerably when the left brain is numbed. After an hour or two, when the left brain comes back to normal, the results again are agonizingly close to the results before the numbing process.

This speaks volumes about the dominance of a thought process. The left brain clearly dominates over the right brain. There are many theories proposing why this happens, some attribute it to the chemical imbalances during the process of birth within the womb, or some even attribute it to the gradual dominance of a hemisphere over the other. The brain works on an amazingly simple technique, "use it, or lose it". If you fail to take advantage of your brain's abilities, you are bound to lose the functionality from your brain & that dysfunctional region instead of just being idle, is utilized by some other brain function. So if you do not make use of your language part of your brain ever, ever since you are born, then that region of your brain would be hijacked by some other dominant function. Eventually you will lose your ability to use speech or language as a medium to communicate & it would become incalculably difficult for you to learn it once you have grown up. Imagine, no language, no thoughts, the brain just sits there and your body just floats around like a unguided zeppelin.

This takes me to another, really crucial argument, why do we lose creativity when we grow up? Do we actually lose it? or do we forget we have one? (just like Snyder proves).

An amazing & amusing video of Sir Ken Robinson at TED, asks a vital question; 'Do Schools Kill Creativity?' The moment I read that title, I almost unconsciously whispered, yes they do. I have been through that unlearning phase which has taught me never to get caught in that same maddening pattern again. It is more liberating now than ever before. But why? why do schools have to kill creativity? He puts forward a simple point, about the classification of fields of study & how they got to be classified that way. He says that every education system in the world is based on the same hierarchy of subjects, Math & languages at the top, the humanities in the middle & the arts at the bottom. The idea is, the most useful subjects for work at the top & descending from there to the subjects where you wouldn't make it worth a living. An unmistakably horrifying thought today when we know how much proliferation creativity has today. This has spawned due to the industrial revolution, which basically decided which subjects will help a kid grow into an adult who will be able to contribute to the working of a factory, a machine & so on. Abilities such as math, logic & mechanical / technical rigor are often encapsulated in the top echelon subjects, where as the professionally less important subjects are relatively below them.

Robinson makes another claim of academic inflation. With the growth in population, of students and the institutes coaching them, more people go through the same type of education which results into a diversity breakdown. This leads to people (who can) adopting to higher education. So a job which required a degree 50 years ago, will now require a post graduate degree & a job which would need a PG degree will now require a PhD or maybe even more. So what happens when we exhaust even that resource of vertical growth. Do we grow laterally & acquire more badges on our sleeves?

The whole point is, the education system forces use subconsciously to become left brained. It teaches us the logical deduction of things, it teaches us to follow patterns & algorithms & we do without asking why, why, because frankly most of the time even the teacher doesnt know the answer. Whom do we owe this unintellectual debt to, once we grow up? We grow up invariably without our choice into number crunching calculators dreaming that everything is part of an efficient system.

But imagine that mind, which has liberated itself from that left brained linearity. Imagine a mind who thinks in abstracts & believes in random patterns & derives every thought on its backdrop. The possibility of such a mind having a niche in the market where everyone has the same kind of thinking is undeniable. We have seen master investors, great artists, out of the box thinkers, basically rock stars of everyday life, are these the people who have let go their left brain dominance?

What is intelligence then? It is, the ability to look at things in diverse ways, from interdisciplinary approaches. This is only possible when you have let go your standard patterns of understanding things. One of the fascinations of the Systems Approach, for me, is in spite of propagating a logical & left brained idea of systems having step by step iterations, it also allows us to think of interconnections among systems. It doesnt stop us to believe that every system is invariably connected to every other in form or the other & realizing this, it allows us to somehow deduce that intelligence can only be possible when such diverse connections become comprehensible.

Although I have too many personal experiences to relate, I need to think on the following concepts..........

- Connecting this dichotomy to parallel encounters & its implications
- Dependence on Academics & the classroom numbing
- Use of psychology to "left brain" normal people
- Finally, forcing the unlearning process through deliberate & new thought patterns

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