Consciousness is perhaps one of the most bizarre phenomena evolution has produced. Not only are billions of cells capable of banding together and walking about, but they are even capable of arranging themselves into an obscenely complicated biological machine. A machine which processes sight, sound, hearing, balance, pain and taste and compiles the information to present itself as the experience of being alive. These cells are then even capable of complex thought and logic to such an extent that they are capable of trying to determine their own origins and the way they themselves work.
However, they don’t always work. Every human being relies on the great teamwork of our cells to function. When they don’t, the reactions are catastrophic. In epilepsy, neurones (essentially the most common brain cell) send off signals to excess, with varying results. Sufferers undergoing a seizure may move involuntarily, they may become entirely unconscious, they may simply be briefly dazed and confused and not even realise what has happened when consciousness regains.
How is this avoided? In our modern day, often with drugs. One procedure intended to help is the corpus callosotomy, which involves cutting the bridge of brain tissue connecting its two hemispheres (halves). It is a less common procedure in our modern day, and in the 1960’s it shed some interesting light on neurology and brain structure as a field.
Roger Sperry conducted experiments on people that proved the two hemispheres were capable of running conscious thought independently. Corpus callosotomy patients would look at a dot in the middle of a screen, and a word would flash to the left. They would then with their left hand pick up an object from a tray. When Sperry asked them about what they were doing, they claimed to have not seen anything flash on the screen, and had no idea whatsoever why they were holding something in their left hand.
Here, one half of the brain had operated entirely independently, recognising a word and picking up an object – and the other half was incapable of vocalising and explaining the action. For me, the real implications of this study are the way its findings challenge individualism. How many ways can we divide a brain and have it remain functional? At what point does a lump of cells and become an organism? Each cell plays it’s part in sensing and perceiving, and ironically Sperry’s experiment truly proves that we owe the concept of the individual to the many. Although, these are very much questions and thoughts for philosophers and ethicists. Biologically, we are conscious and alive, and we owe the universe for that phenomenon.
Mentioned Today in Headcandy:
Hemisphere Disconnection and Unity in Conscious Awareness – RW Sperry
Left Brain, Right Brain: Facts and Fantasies – Michael Corballis
Impaired Consciousness in Epilepsy – Hal Blumenfield