For more than fifty years, DABI member Michael Gazzaniga, Ph.D., has been working towards fostering our understanding of the human brain. During the summer of 1964, he worked under neurobiologist Roger Sperry at the California Institute of Technology and contributed to a discovery that is now considered “legendary” in the field of brain science.
The discovery of the “split brain” occurred while Sperry and Gazzaniga were studying patients that had undergone split-brain surgery, or corpus calloscotomy, as a way to lessen their epileptic seizures. When questioning both the right and left hemispheres of one patient’s brain afterwards, they found that both sides acted independently from each other. When asking the right side what he wanted to be when he grew up, he answered, “an automobile racer.” When they directed the same question at the left side, he answered, “a draftsman.” In a recent interview with National Geographic, Gazzaniga explains:
[W]e were able to discover that the right hemisphere didn’t know about the functions of the left hemisphere and the left hemisphere didn’t have access to the information in the right hemisphere. Out of that came the left brain-right brain metaphor. It’s been with our culture a long time and, of course, it got picked up and over-extended. I was skiing once in Colorado, struggling a bit, and some guy came zipping down the hill by me and he yelled: ‘Use your right brain!’ [Laughs] Of course, it’s a little more complex than that.
In the article, he recounts his experiences as a graduate student eager to join Sperry’s team at Caltech and insight he has gained over decades of strenuous—but rewarding—work. Now, at age 75, Gazzaniga is the director of the SAGE Center for the Study of Mind and a professor of psychology at University of California Santa Barbara. Less than three weeks after his interview with National Geographic, Gazzaniga was also featured on The Brian Lehrer Show at one of New York’s flagship public radio stations, WNYC 93.9 FM.
Much has changed since Gazzaniga first began his career as a neurobiologist in the 1960s. In his latest book, Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience, Gazzaniga looks back on the challenges he faced, as well as the elations he shared with his team of pioneering neuroscientists. His collaboration with Sperry happened by chance, only because of a letter the young graduate wrote asking if he could use a summer intern. That letter was the spark for a career that has spanned more than five decades and led to publications and lab studies that have since contributed toward our understanding of how the brain enables mind and behavior.