Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: March 31st, 2015 by bobmorris

Tales from BothTales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience
Michael S. Gazzaniga
Ecco/An imprint of HarperCollins Publishers (2015)

“His wit and joie de vivre showed generations of students and colleagues the human face of science.” Steven Pinker

Most of the great works of non-fiction are evidence- and/or experience-driven and usually involve a journal of personal discovery. That is certainly true of this book in which Michael Gazzaniga shares dozens of “tales” from his life and career in neuroscience, thus far. Gazzaniga is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he heads the new SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind. His primary focus in this book is on six patients whose treatment — varying somewhat in nature and extent — involved experiments in split-brain research that generated revelations of historic significance.

As Gazzaniga explains, these were founding cases from CalTech (identified as W.J, N.G., and L.B.) and the East Coast series (P.S., J.W., and V.P.). “While some have died, others live and remain very special people. They are the story and in many ways give the story its structure. Even with their brains divided for medical reasons, they conquered life with singular purpose and will. How they did this reveals secrets about how those of us without the operation accomplish this as well.”

These are among the dozens of passages of greatest interest and value to me (in Parts 1 and 2), also listed to suggest the scope of his coverage:

o Discovering Caltech (Pages 17-26)
o Science Then and Now, and, Origin of Split-Brain Research (40-46)
o Dr. Sperry, and, Discovery and Credit (46-54)
o Establishing the Basics (of scientific exploration), Pages 55-58
o Wait: How Does Sensory-Motor Integration Work? (67-75)
o Brain Cueing Is Everywhere (79-83)
o Leaving the Nest (91-96)
o Sharing Resources: The Art of Science (104-109)
o The New York Lunch (119-125)
o First Steps into the Neurologic Clinic (127-131)
o Challenging the Idea of Two Minds (131-135)
o Don’t Quit Your Day Job (144-153)
o The Joys of Mentoring and Friendship (161-169)
o George A. Miller and the Birth of Cognitive Neuroscience (179-186)
o The Two Posners, One of a Kind (190-197)
o Simplifying Our Lives (216-225)
o Brain Mechanisms of Attention (225-232)
o Only Partial Disconnections: The Semi-Split Mind (239-244)
o The Allure of a Research University (246-248)

Those who read this brilliant book will also experience a personal journey of their own. I, for one, felt as if I were tagging along with Gazzaniga as he proceeds through his formal education and subsequent involvement in a series of breakthrough experiments. He confides, “As I look back on those early days, it may have been good for human split-brain research to begin coming of age in the hands of the simplest researcher: me. I didn’t know anything [except that]. I was simply trying to figure it out using my own vocabulary and my own simple logic. That is all I had, along with bundles of energy.”

Over time, of course, Gazzaniga gained international renown for his achievements that also include important advances in our understanding of functional lateralization in the brain and how the cerebral hemispheres communicate with one another. So, what we have is personal/professional memoir of a pioneer in neuroscience research but also a wealth of information and insights provided by the treatment of six very special people “who taught the world so much.” Gazzaniga dedicates this volume to them. He duly acknowledges each breakthrough as “a task made possible over the years by the generous cooperation of the patients themselves” as well as countless associates with whom he collaborated, notably Roger W. Sperry to whom he reported at CalTech. “It is no secret that Roger Sperry and I had some difficulties later in my career…While sharing credit was not his long suit, it also should be no secret that I never gad anything but the highest regard for him. When he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1981 for split-brain work, it was well-deserved.”

Thank you, Michael Gazzaniga, for all that I have learned from what you have learned and so generously shared. There is so much more for me to learn as my own “journey” continues. You conclude with a key point: “Humans may have discovered some of the constraints on the thought processes, but we have not been able to tell the complete story.” No doubt you have several more “chapters” to contribute. Bon voyage!

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