Cognition in Space and Time

Cognition in Space and Time

Disclaimer: this is not written with the rigor of a scientific journal, isn't up for peer review, and though references have been linked where applicable, also contains a large portion of purely speculative hot takes that I think are worth looking into more, but have been unable to find solid scientific evidence for (or against) as of yet. If there is further evidence (either direction) please let me know, and I will adjust my theories as indicated by said evidence. For now, I'm just starting a conversation...

There's an old notion of left and right brain functions, which many know was eventually debunked. Except it wasn't, really, other than some of the details. The presumption of dominant hemisphere depending on gender, and which side did what, turned out to be less well-defined.

Men and women can be more or less biased either way, and nothing says logic is on the left and creativity is on the right, or that logic and creativity really encapsulate the difference well. Once we factor in cross-hemisphere communication, it's said that any distinction or bias more or less washes out. I don't think this is the whole story though, and some research on autism and ambidexterity correlating to less hemispheric specialization suggests it's at least possible that there's some interesting stuff going on here.

What is true, is that there are some areas of the brain where lateralized function does exist, and there is a non-universal but hard bias towards which side is which, similar to handedness. Studies on individuals with split brains are quite illuminating, and there are instances where their left and right hand seem to argue, selecting an outfit with one hand, then replacing it for another with the other hand, as one video showed. These are not extensive (that I've found yet), but the aggregate info suggests reasonably well that we have (at least) two distinct centers of consciousness - and they aren't necessarily always in agreement. This is, however, still a topic of debate.

Since the (typically) left hemisphere has been pretty well isolated in handling speech, it seems reasonable to assume the right is "silent", and thinks in non-verbal forms, which suggests this second center of consciousness is probably what we typically refer to as the subconscious. In reality, it's no less lucid and alert or present than the left, but the way it functions is not what we associate with the conscious mind, as well as lacking words to express itself. The (typically) right hemisphere is far more connected to intuitive and feeling processes, suggesting involvement in what we call the mind-body problem.

Just about everyone has presumably experienced the problem where they want to do something, but can't quite get themselves to do it. The (conscious) mind knows it wants to, and has good reasons for it, but there's a dense, heels-digging-in resistance that just won't let you budge to do it. We might attribute this to the superego vs id, or frontal cortical based executive function vs the limbic system, or whatever else, but it's worth considering this is (also) a battle of the left and right, one using words and reason, and the other silently rebelling by simply refusing to cooperate.

One of my strong interests is meta-cognition and, in addition to my own psyche, I will happily poke and prod at anyone else's who's open to such. The human mind is endlessly fascinating, to be sure. I'm not convinced that the hemispheric connections are as functional in everyone, or we overestimate how functional this is in general. I had several younger folks (mid teens to mid 20s) cover each eye in turn and read a paragraph of somewhat challenging text they'd never read before. They did not know beforehand which side of the brain was supposed to do what, and reported as candidly as they were able.

It's not strictly scientific, but the results were consistent in that reading speed was faster with one eye, but low comprehension and high distraction, while slower on the other, but with higher comprehension and focus. The more apparently right-brained the person overall, the more the distinction appeared present, while the more left-brained biased, the less difference in comprehension and distraction. There were other notable factors and details, and I hope to eventually find enough willing guinea pigs to see what patterns those factors might also indicate. Suffice it to say, nobody I asked had no noticeable difference, they only varied on amount and what sorts.

After a lot of tests and reading and contemplating, it seems reasonable to say the left brain function is heavily reliant on focus, or creates it, as it handles details and specifics, particularly relating to the here and now. The right is more holistic, bigger picture, and seems more about taking in sensory information and processing it into nuggets of intuition for the left to steal and look clever.

These days you can't throw an ipad without hitting someone with ADHD, it seems. I'm not sure I've ever met a gen-z or alpha with an enviable attention span (outside of hyperfocus binges), and even gen-x isn't doing great, honestly. I attribute this to a number of factors, including internet induced dopamine tolerance, helicopter parents, tech enhanced lives, chemical pollution, and myriad other possible contributors, in varied combinations. This isn't news. In fact, if you're still reading this post, congratulations, you appear to have a functional left brain hemisphere - even if you are also ADHD more broadly (a distinction worthy of note itself).

The bit that's more relevant to the topic, is that the more ADHD or autistic presenting someone was in my sample, the more right-brained biased they seem to be. This may be sample bias, and this is one of my less verified theoretical points, but the left hemisphere functions are more reliant on dopamine, and the right more on norepinephrine. Now, dopamine is all the hotness due to tech addiction, but norepinephrine is also called adrenaline, and you're probably quite familiar with it too. You can be dead tired and limping along, and something scares the hell out of you, and you're immediately and entirely awake and alert with heart racing and all the other fun effects.

Without going into a whole lecture on neurotransmitters (fascinating as they are), we can extract some essential ideas: dopamine relates strongly to attention and focus, and the ability to break down complex collections of things (like a messy room) to figure out what's important to even focus on in an endless array of incoming stimuli, and adrenaline gives you feeling of energy and motivation to move.

In ADHD, ASD, and "gen-z syndrome" (I love gen-z dearly, but it's as good a term as any, for the period and the people) in general, we see a distinct and pervasive lack of both focus and motivation. An extremely common set of complaints being an inability to plan and organize (order) things usefully, focus on uninteresting things, discern what is more or less useful to even focus on, and even if they are told what to do, find it difficult or impossible to actually get moving on it. Without the left brain's ability to pick a thing, focus, and give it meaning, it can't create an emotional effect that gets the right on board with the go-juice.

They generally cite a lack of emotional motivation or "oomph" necessary to overcome the pushback against their conscious, rational mind wanting to do it, and despite it issuing all sorts of reasons, threats, and generally screaming into the void in abject frustration. I would even be so bold as to say this has reached epidemic proportions, and really isn't limited to gen-z/alpha at all, though they seem to frequently have more trouble powering through it with sheer determination and self-flagellation. In the old alchemical marriage, Jung's writing, and others, we see the symbolism of the two hemispheres as yang and yin, masc and fem, husband and wife, in union. Perhaps this relates to the surge in articles about people giving up on dating and relationships lately. If our hemispheres were a married couple, most would seem to be long divorced now.

Further observation delves into social interactions, creative expression, and the phenomenon of online memes. If we observe the art, music, and other cultural artifacts of each generation, there are some definite shifts that appear to accompany this shift in hemispheric bias towards the right. Art is becoming less coherently structured or realism-based, more hyper-color saturated and jumbled, to the point even Dada is giving it the side-eye. Music is frequently highly chaotic, often with multiple layers of seemingly unrelated and dissonant tracks. And the memes, often overlooked due to their ephemeral quality and lack of any apparent purpose, have been devolving from silliness to obscure in-jokes to complete incomprehensible nonsense (I've verified with folks in the target audience that this is the case and it's not just me).

So, in summary, my theory and hot take is that the social media and internet induced (among whatever else) dopamine problem - which we really can't bury our head in the sand about anymore, it's really too obvious if you stop and look around much - is likely having further side effects than I've seen suggested elsewhere. I'm not saying it's all bad having a bit more of that right brained intuitive goodness come back into play after some generations of toiling on the industrial and information revolutions, but we need the left too, for clarity, focus, planning, organizing, or doing much of anything other than flopping around in chaos. Chaos is important - in moderation - but too much is at least as bad as too little.

This could, theoretically, also explain what many have observed in the world seeming to have gone insane on a mass scale the past several years. Some communities or groups are more isolated from it, presumably, but out here in the trenches it seems pretty obvious to everyone that something has gone terribly wrong. Some folks seem to be finding lucidity again lately, like coming out of a weird haze or bad trip, and are still baffled and wondering who spiked the punch. I don't think it was covid (or the vax), or covid had a partner in crime at the least.

Perhaps we're adjusting, adapting to the shift, as our own wetware neural networks try to compensate and re-balance their weights before ChatGPT becomes smarter than us - or rather, we get dumber than it. A large language model is a bit like the right brain function, holding everything and nothing in an undifferentiated chaotic state, until a questioner with a specific perspective anchored in spacetime - aka left brain - presents an explicit context to work in. Perhaps we could learn a bit more from the AIs than we think.

More on this and other oddities I've noticed in this left/right bias coming soon - if I can find the focus and motivation to write it up...