An old friend of mine, Ann Berthoff, is greatly loved and respected by many as well as myself. She is a teacher in the full sense of the word and a scholar who has dedicated her life to composition and reading. In short her life long work has been literacy. Ann recently critiqued narrative medicine for me, suggesting that expression was not the whole of it and recommended, as strongly as only someone like her can, that thinking has much to do with recovery and healing – with surviving and thriving.
I believe her and would like to explain why and under what contexts. It is true that expression through art and language is not only a starting point but also a focus point for those who suffer, both from illness and from injury. Again, I see suffering and joy as the two most communicable and recognizable of human experiences – the focus points of how we understand what it is to be human and the bridges that allow us to cross one to the other.
Language, art, and music are vehicles for the work of surviving and thriving – the means for crossing the bridges among humans and also the vehicles for crossing the bridge between the two hemispheres of the brain.
Ann Berthoff recently told me a story of a group of teachers who formed the Corpus Callosum Club. The Corpus Collosum is the pathway between the two hemispheres of the brain.
The corpus callosum (Latin: tough body), also known as the colossal commissure, is a wide, flat bundle of neural fibers beneath the cortex in theeutherian brain at the longitudinal fissure. It connects the left and right cerebral hemispheres and facilitates interhemispheric communication. It is the largest white matter structure in the brain, consisting of 200–250 million contralateral axonal projections. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corpus_callosum
And, a definition from the Psychology Glossary:
Corpus Callosum: This area contains the largest bundle of nerve fibers in the brain and connects the two sides (hemispheres) of the brain. The corpus callosum doesn’t just sit there, it is responsible for allowing the two hemispheres to communicate with each other and share information. Thus, the corpus callosum carries massages between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Psychology Glossary
This information is, I am sure, basic to any MD or nurse with any familiarity at all of the functions of the brain, but it is worth noting for the rest of us that this pathway is central to becoming a whole person and to surviving and thriving. It is also clear to me that the practice of the arts stimulates the exchange between hemispheres. I would also like to make a case for the language arts being particularly important in facilitating exchanges between hemisphere’s and creating new synapses that make healing and revival from brain injury possible.
My argument about language and healing, and ultimately thinking and healing, has to do with the designated roles (functions) of the hemispheres. Holistic thought, for example is situated in the right side, along with art, music, and intuition. The inclusion of creativity in this function mix may be a bit problematic – not in regard to function but in regard to our understanding of creativity. Creativity I argue is the interchange between the functions in the two sides of the brain. There are many studies about what happens when the cc is severed, split, or underdeveloped, most famous the work of Roger Sperry in the 1960s. For example:
The studies demonstrated that the left and right hemispheres are specialized in different tasks. The left side of the brain is normally specialized in taking care of the analytical and verbal tasks. The left side speaks much better than the right side, while the right half takes care of the space perception tasks and music, for example. The right hemisphere is involved when you are making a map or giving directions on how to get to your home from the bus station. The right hemisphere can only produce rudimentary words and phrases, but contributes emotional context to language. Without the help from the right hemisphere, you would be able to read the word “pig” for instance, but you wouldn’t be able to imagine what it is. http://www.nobelprize.org/educational/medicine/split-brain/background.html
Not knowing what a pig is and being able to read “pig” is a demonstration of the problem with the split. What is it to be human without the ability to imagine a thing once named? How is it to be a human without the most basic function of language, to be able to know something without holding it in your hand? So, the connection between language and the right side of the brain becomes central to being whole in mind. It happens because of the corpus callosum.
As Emily Dickenson has it:
I never saw a Moor –
I never saw the Sea –
Yet I know how the Heather looks
And what a Billow be.
This brings me back to Ann Berthoff and her insistence that thinking is necessary for healing. Ann’s work has been literacy but also developing the speculative instruments of the mind in order to think creatively – to engender as it were “felt thoughts.” When she uses words such as thinking or reason we are not necessarily wrapped in the traditional cluster of acts most associated with thinking. Mainly, I believe Ann would contend, and I am going to ask her about this, that the species of thinking she wants us to do to heal and to thrive is a species that creates an awareness of the mind’s function and interplay between the hemispheres – a thinking that focuses on the CC. That thinking is characterized by a willingness to audit our thinking – and our meanings – something that Ann Berthoff teaches us to do in her books. We are best served in this by metacognition – the awareness of how we think, why we thought, what is happening when we think, and how that thinking transforms our feelings into thoughts and in doing so blends them in such a way as to allow us to feelthink. The artistic side and the scientific side of our brains are thus joined. Wholeness.
As any therapy can be a good or bad thing depending upon the reductionist approach to therapy. Narrative Medicine must be for those who study and practice it a non-reductive activity that finds theories and scientific data the stuff of interpretation. We may want to find a theory of therapy that suits us well. In this case, what therapies are most suitable to building the bridge between the right and left side of the brain. It seems to me that we can begin as scientists or as artists as long as we meet on the bridge, this is a good metaphor and a good description of acts that engage us in the celebrations and work of the corpus callosum club.
Here, I want to suggest Viktor E. Frankl’s “will to meaning.” Frankl, a concentration camp survivor, maintains that the primary need in humans is not the will to pleasure or power but the will to meaning. We suffer most, he says, from a lack of seeing what we are and do as meaningful. For the survivor, and Frankl is one, the deliberate search for meaning is essential for health and for well being. Otherwise, we live a “provisional life,” one that leads to apathy. He says,
Psychological observations of the prisoners have shown that only the men who allowed their inner hold on their moral and spiritual selves to subside eventually fell victim to the camp’s degenerating influences. The question now arises, what could, or should, have constituted this “inner hold”? (69)
In his descriptions of what constituted the tools or instruments, Frankl tells stories that reveal art, humor, observation, story telling, and reasoning as elements for survival. He further says, “Sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life may have suffered much pain . . .but the damage to their inner selves was less. They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom” (35).
The lives of those who are injured or ill or prisoners are alike in this sense, that an engagement with the artistic and with careful observation (science perhaps) will be something that is a therapy in the sense that it is something for them to do in finding and creating meaning in their lives.