Tales From Both Sides of the Brain

Gazzaniga R

Gazzaniga L

An engaging new book from Michael S. Gazzaniga, a Ph.D. who was integral to the idea of hemispheric specialization and a student of Roger Sperry upon whom historians of science bestow credit for the idea of split brain patient studies.  This was done via hemispherectomy, accomplished through severing connections across the corpus callosum – a radical treatment at the time for patients with uncontrollable epilepsy.

Among the many delightful social aspects of science recounted in his book, my favorite is the description of Gazzaniga’s detour from Caltech to spend time in Pisa working with Giacomo Rizzolatti, a young neurophysiologist who would go on to pioneer the concept of mirror neurons.  Sperry came to visit the lab in Pisa, and the big day arrived when a single electrode would be lowered into a cat’s corpus callosum to record activity in this crucial interstate highway of the brain.  This would literally allow the scientists to eavesdrop on the neural signals traversing the callosum between the hemispheres.  Amid great anticipation, Rizzolatti slowly lowered the electrode into the callosum, with a recording system hooked up to a loudspeaker.  They were poised to hear the rat-tat-tat that was the Morse code of the brain, and as the electrode pierced the callosum this is what boomed through the loudspeaker:

An electronic ground loop had been closed, somehow substituting the feed from a local radio station.  Rizzolatti quipped: “Now that is what I call high-order information”.  Ringo Starr turned out to the star of the show that day, but other cats would go on to contribute heavily to our understanding of the human brain.  In his preface, Gazzanniga promises to regale readers with how science is a social enterprise.  He does not disappoint.

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