Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Magical, Manic Poets: Poetry as Right-Hemispheric Language

"If left-hemispheric dominance for language is not the ‘natural’ condition of human beings aged eight and older, but rather, a side effect of print literacy, then it stands to reason that the qualitative changes in consciousness between
oral and print cultures—from community identity, ‘magical thinking,’ pervasive animist spirituality, and poetry to individualism, science, and rationalism, faith-based religion or agnosticism/atheism, and prose—may be the outward signs
of a fundamental shift from right- to left-hemispheric structuring of conscious thought processes and memories.”

—Julie Kane, "Poetry as Right-Hemispheric Language," p. 16

Wow. After I posted this quote, Julie Kane kindly came by to add to the discussion and provided us the link to the complete article, which is now online here

I've just started reading it, and I've already gotten the chills. i don't know if I really want to get so far to the bottom of my "compulsion to write poetry"--i sense it may confirm too many awful suspicions I've had since childhood--but I know I'd better. So here goes. I hope to see many of you at the discussion afterwards--I know I'm going to need the support!!


Annie Finch said...

So, what does this mean for poetry?

et said...
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et said...
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Lyle Daggett said...

Here's the thing though -- even the discovery of how to control and use fire, even the discovery or invention of the wheel, were at least in some sense acts of technology, acts of science, maybe not exclusively that but at least partly that.

The first attempts at counting things (which may or may not have pre-dated what we now generally call "writing,") may have been at least rudimentary precursors of writing.

The cave paintings in what are now France and Spain include, not only images of animals (real existing ones, and in some cases mythological-looking hybrid creatures), but also, sometimes, shapes or marks or designs (spiral shapes, criss-crossed groups of lines, dots or spots of color, sometimes among or between other images, sometimes overlapping with them), that may or may not have been representational -- if they were, modern scholars haven't yet agreed on what they represent.

Chinese written characters evolved to their present form from earlier forms that were more clearly pictorial or representational. Egyptian and Mayan hieroglyphs (to use what's really an arbitrary name for them) appear to be more plainly representational images, and are at the same time fully developed systems of writing. Just to name some of the more famous examples.

Birds make nests, beavers build dams, all manner of animals dig holes in the ground to live in.

Pre-literate speech, human spoken language, is already an act highly involved with both the left and right halves of the brain.

My point being -- I'm skeptical of the notion that rational thought, science, and so on, are "side effects" of literacy. I'm not suggesting that the dominance of qualities attributed to the left side of the brain necessarily results in a better world than if such qualities were less dominant. I just believe that we have both halves of our brains (or at least six hemispheres -- left/right, front/rear, upper/lower) for a reason.

Or, to come at this differently -- how then did the widespread dominance (in some sectors of the modern world) of qualities associated with the left hemisphere of the brain occur in a species which (as the passage from Julie Kane suggests) earlier functioned largely by means of "community identity, 'magical thinking,' pervasive animist spirituality, and poetry"?

I do agree that poetry is, primarily, right-hemisphere language, though I believe also that (at least) both the left and right hemispheres of the brain are involved in writing poetry.

Anonymous said...

If anyone is interested in reading the full article from which the quotation was taken (which, I think, addresses the very valid questions raised by Lyle, above, in greater depth than I could do justice to by summarizing), it was reprinted online in the journal PsyArt (2007), from its original publication in Journal of Consciousness Studies 11.5/6 (2004): 21-59.

Mim said...

Yes, poets use both sides of the brain, as do all artists.

Annie Finch said...

Thanks, Julie, for the cite!
I will read it and I hope Lyle will also, and then it would be great to continue the discussion--and I hope you will stay to participate?

Lyle Daggett said...

I've read (so far) about half of the full article, and have bookmarked it. I'll go back and finish reading it. (Getting late here at the moment.)

Thanks for posting the link.

Lyle Daggett said...

I've read the rest of the article. I welcome the broad spectrum of research evidence it outlines in support of the idea that poetic language is, principally, language rooted in functions associated with the right half of the brain.

Actually, I'd long assumed this, though I'm no neuroscientist and don't have a background in any related field; my assumption was based on random amateur reading and understanding. And, I suppose, on the subjective experience of having written poetry for long time. I'm pleased that there appears to be valid scientific evidence for the notion.

I didn't find, in my reading of the article, any substantial evidence for the idea that "left-hemispheric dominance for language" is "a side effect of print literacy," or any substantial evidence that "the qualitative changes between oral and print cultures" constitute "outward signs of a fundamental shift from right- to left-hemispheric structuring of conscious thought processes and memories." Quoting here phrases from the paragraph quoted at the beginning of the blogpost above.

Although poetic language does, I think, lean toward functions associated with the right half of the brain, the creative process overall, I think, involves both halves (or all halves) of the brain as needed.

Regarding the four stages of the creative process summarized in the passage from Bogen and Bogen quoted in the article (and limiting this, for the moment, just to the left and right halves of the brain), in my experience the "preparation" stage might lean more toward either right-brain or left-brain functions, or be fairly balanced between both, depending on the nature of the preparatory work. (One might, for instance, do library reading on invertebrate marine biology, or wander for an hour by seashore, or both, as preparation for writing a poem.)

The "incubation" stage does, I think, tend mostly toward functions of the right half of the brain -- in my own experience, I often find that before I can write, I need to spend some time getting at the silence of things before words. The "illumination" stage might again involve aspects of both the right and left halves of the brain. I conceive of poems as three- (or four-) dimensional geometric structures. When I have a momentary sense or glimpse of the geometric shape of a potential poem, I start writing it down.

The stage Bogen and Bogen call "verification" tends, I think, to be mostly left-hemispheric in nature, as Bogen and Bogen suggest, though not necessarily or always.

I don't necessarily accept the four stages Bogen and Bogen describe as definitive, though their system seems as good as any for a way to talk about the process. More fundamentally I think the creative process involves high levels of interhemispheric communication. It may be different for different people. In my own case, when I'm writing I'm constantly letting the words flow out as they will, and at the same time constantly asking myself "Is this the right word? Is that the right place to break the line?"

Having read the full article, I'm still left with the basic question: even if we assume, for a moment, that some fundamental shift has occurred in some cultures from right- to left-hemispheric structuring of conscious thought processes and memories, how this this occur, how did a left-brain-dominated culture emerge from a species that once was not left-brain-dominated? How did writing and print and (now) silicon-and-lights emerge from a species that did not originally use them?

The fact that human beings continue to make poetry, after the development of writing, and then print, and (now) silicon-and-lights, suggests to me, if anything, that print literacy has a minimal role, if any, in any fundamental shift from left- to right-hemispheric structuring of conscious thought processes and memories.

Anonymous said...

The word count limit for posting is short, so I will break my response into segments--sorry!

I think that some background and context for my article may be useful in assessing it. I can understand how people who read only the excerpted quote and not the complete article might assume that it is based upon 1970s-era pop culture, reductionist stereotypes of right vs. left brain functioning, but such is far from the case.

The bulk of the research for my article was conducted between 1994 and 2002; it was submitted in late 2002 for peer review in connection with a planned “consciousness and literature” themed issue of the British journal Journal of Consciousness Studies, to be edited by Roberta Tucker of the University of South Florida. For U.S. readers who may not be familiar with Journal of Consciousness Studies, it is an interdisciplinary academic journal whose editorial board members include some of the most respected names in consciousness (including neuroscience) studies: David Chalmers of the University of Arizona, Daniel Dennett of Tufts, Roger Penrose of Oxford, Nicholas Humphrey of the New School for Social Research, and more than twenty other distinguished scholars from institutions including CalTech, UC Berkeley, CUNY, UC Irvine, the University of Illinois, the Neurosciences Institute, and the Institute of Cognitive Neurosciences. The article underwent peer review by two anonymous reviewers, one from the field of neuroscience and one from English language/literature. The JCS issue came out in May/June 2004. Three years later, Norman Holland of the University of Florida (best known as one of the founders of reader response theory, but also a pioneer in cognitive studies of literature) asked for permission to reprint it in his online journal PsyArt, and I understand that it passed through peer review again prior to being reprinted. Since its publication, it has been cited a number of times in other scholarly articles. Neurobiologist Allan N. Schore of UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine recommended it to his readers in his regular column for the American Psychological Association’s (APA’s) Division of Psychoanalysis newsletter, Psychologist- Psychoanalyst. The article has also resulted in invitations for me to peer-review several neuroscience-based articles for scholarly journals and to write the “Neurobiology of Poetic Language” entry for the forthcoming Cambridge Encyclopedia of the Language Sciences. In other words, my ideas and hypotheses have passed through the academic and professional “gatekeeper” channels that now enable them to be put forth for others to prove, disprove, or qualify. That is exactly what I was hoping for when, at the end of my article, I expressed my hope that “the foregoing ideas could all be verified or disproven, as the case may be, under controlled experimental conditions.” I make no claim to being right: rather, I claim that there is a huge body of evidence out there whose patterns suggest that my hypotheses may either be true or, perhaps, on the right track for others to take up and refine further. (cont'd)

Anonymous said...

Lyle, above, mentioned that he did not find “substantial” evidence in the article for LH dominance for language’s being “a side effect of print literacy.” My evidence is laid out in the “Discussion” section, addressing the emergence of LH dominance for language in children/adolescents, the contrasting results for illiterate children subjected to dichotic listening tests, the contrasting results for children and teenagers learning a second language (who are RH dominant in the “new” language until it is mastered), the case of language-deprived “Genie” and her extreme RH dominance on dichotic listening tests, the tests conducted on bilingual Native American children whose primary languages were oral (in contrast to monolingual English-speaking children), and the sharply differing rates of aphasia (loss of language) suffered by literate vs. illiterate persons who suffer a left-hemispheric lesion (stroke) with subsequent right-sided weakness. The entire article, taken as a whole, is meant to support my hypothesis that the emergence of LH dominance for language, as a side effect of phonetic alphabetic print literacy, is what underlies the fundamental differences between oral and print consciousness/cultures. Again, I cannot “prove” my hypothesis—I can only say here it is, it seems to me to explain a mountain of evidence quite neatly.

Lyle and I both think that Bogen and Bogen’s theory regarding the four stages of the creative process and the hemispheric involvement in each stage is largely sound. The only point on which we may differ is that I suggested a second explanation for the “illumination” stage: where Bogen and Bogen assume that an increase in the normal level of communication between the RH and LH must take place during the “illumination” phase, I suggest that a sudden loss or decrease in interhemispheric communication could also be behind the phenomenon; i.e., that regions of the RH that are normally inhibited by the LH from activating under certain conditions could suddenly activate, in the absence of the inhibitory signal that would normally be passed from one hemisphere to another. (cont'd)

Anonymous said...

Lyle’s question, “[H]ow did a left-brain-dominated culture emerge from a species that once was not left-brain-dominated?” is a good one. Again, I am just hypothesizing, not making any claims to fact. But I think that the answer could lie in 1) the neurodiversity of populations, 2) the incredible plasticity of the human brain, and 3) the phenomenon by which the “outputs” of human culture become the “inputs” shaping the neural wiring of future generations. First, hemispheric dominance for language is NEVER monolithic. Even in a culture such as that of the 21st-century U.S., with a literacy rate of around 99 percent, you will find a neurodiverse population. Around three percent of the population is RH dominant for language. Hemispheric dominance for language is also not necessarily stable: as I showed in my discussion of poets and affective disorders, it appears that LH dominance for language may shift to the RH during the manic phase of bipolar affective disorder, and then revert to LH dominance after the episode is over. In ancient times, even with the majority of persons in a given culture not possessing LH dominance for language, I would imagine that there must have been certain individuals, or a small fraction of the population, who did—perhaps they might even have been the ones best suited to the occupation of scribe, and the ones who began to include characters representing phonemes along with symbols representing things. And certainly “literacy” is not monolithic. When I say “alphabetic print literacy,” I am talking specifically about individuals who become fluent readers of printed (not handwritten) texts utilizing an alphabet whose symbols are abstract. Reading a symbol language, reading cursive handwriting, even reading phonetic alphabetic texts printed in all capital letters, all call upon the RH and its pattern recognition capabilities to a great extent. Recall that, in the ancient world, both Julius Caesar and St. Ambrose astonished onlookers by being able to read silently to themselves without moving their mouths and mumbling out loud. That halting sort of reading, where the brain and the ears labor to recognize each word as it comes, seems to have been the “norm” up until the Renaissance (marked by the invention of the printing press, the proliferation of printed texts, and an upsurge in literacy rates). As I see it, LH dominance for language would emerge over time as written languages changed from being symbol-based to phonetic-alphabet-based; as texts changed from being handwritten to being printed in mechanically standardized formats; and as “readers” grew from a small number of scribes in the ancient world, to the clergy and a privileged few in medieval Europe, to a good swath of the middle class beginning in the Renaissance, on through our present age of widespread literacy. (I won’t digress about the changes that I believe are now occurring to “print culture consciousness” in the wake of the Internet, video games, and the fall-off in reading as a primary source of information input, as that would overcomplicate the discussion—but I do believe that McLuhan was on target in predicting an electronic age of “secondary orality.”) At each stage of the process, the more “literate” (LH dominant for language) persons are the ones who produce the texts and speeches and politics and philosophies that, in turn, shape the thinking of those who come after them, so that even the less-literate persons within an LH-dominant culture have their thinking structured by it, in some ways.

This has been an impromptu response to Lyle’s questions, as opposed to the article itself—which was the careful product of many years of research and months of writing—so I am sure that I could have phrased things much better with sufficient time and resources on hand—but I do hope that it has clarified some points.

Gary B. Fitzgerald said...



The mystery of the early dark,
the secret of the caves,
altar to the fear of not surviving.
What purpose these tinted beasts,
these invisible creatures seen only
in the fire light of the spirit
and imagination?
A token to the animal gods,
tithe to the hunt?
A prayer to the bear for good luck?

I don’t think so, no. These beasts
were painted with the pigments
of gratitude and wonder,
the suppression of hunger
with the colors of guilt and regret,
after dinner.

Copyright 2008 - SOFTWOOD-Seventy-eight Poems, Gary B. Fitzgerald

Annie Finch said...
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Gary B. Fitzgerald said...


Annie Finch said...

There is also a strong connection between the right brain and autism, by the way-and according to fascinating research by Ralph Savarese, poetry, especially metrical/formal poetry, has calming effects on autistic kids. More on this in another post.

Annie Finch said...

Here's a slightly more polished revision of my earlier comment:

Julie implies that LH people become politically dominant because of the very fact of literacy, which makes a lot of sense. But a fuller answer to Lyle's question, how did LH so fully replace RH dominance, should really include the perspective of the recent book THE ALPhABET AND THE GODDESS: that political and military force exerted over many centuries, on behalf of LH-focused, monotheistic, book-based religion, has been a key factor in imposing the change to LH dominance so thoroughly.

It seems pretty clear that, from the Spanish Inquisition to the murder of thousands of witches in the Burning Times to the decimation of Native peoples around the globe, force and violence have been used to impose the alphabet, the book, the Word, on peaceful, right-brain dominated (and usually goddess-loving!) populations.

This book also argues that, as Julie noted, RH dominance is now being strengthened again through current image-based technologies.

Annie Finch said...

Also, I just wanted to say thanks so much to Julie and Lyle for this rich discussion!!! This seems a key topic and one I hope we'll return to again on this blog.

Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

I'm guessing that nobody got my corny Left/Right joke back there:


So I offer this to recompense:

Do you know what you get when you cross a Jehovah's Witness with an Atheist?

Somebody who knocks on your door for no reason at all!


the unreliable narrator said...

Maybe I am just being a giant dork here, but it does seem odd to me that no one's mentioned Leonard Shlain thus far. I can't even think about these things without referencing The Alphabet and the Goddess, w/r/t how the invention of symbolic writing altered our hemispheres and worldviews—at least until the more recent ascendancy of two-handed typing and visual culture (and coterminously if not causally, the resurgence of interest in earth-based religion).

If any of that makes sense which I doubt, since I had twenty student conferences today. Leonard said it all better, anyway, already: