A Tale of Two Brain Halves (1), or: Proust and the Hypothalamus

It was definitely an exciting week for Proust-lovers with a thing for popular science (2).

The press reported upon a neurological experiment (meant to relieve a patient from his eating disorder) whereby Deep Brain Stimulation of the Hypothalamus had unwittingly engendered a vivid memory recollection in the recipient of the stimulation. The patient gushed about how he remembered a long forgotten scene in a park with friends, how he recognized his then girlfriend, how he could even distinguish details of the clothes, and how everything was in full color. And when the stimulation was intensified, the remembered details became all the more vivid.

What was so particular about this déjà vu experience was that it was brought on by stimulation of a part of the brain not at all associated with conscious memory formation! The Hypothalamus is part of the limbic system and has to do with lowly hormones, with the control of primary body functions such as body temperature, hunger, thirst, fatigue …. and it is responsive to light and to olifactory stimuli.

Hmmm … primary body-functions … smell …. and involuntary memories …. Yes, this rather smells like Proust! Proust, who with obsessive attention recorded his sensations and moods and whose most moving pages describe sudden, involuntary déjà vu’s – forgotten moments resurrected by the taste of a cake dipped in tea, or by the stumbling on two uneven tiles, or by the sleepy movement of an arm reaching for the light switch. Moments of the past that had never been consciously stored up because the intellect had found them not important enough to mull over, truly forgotten moments brought back to life in full vivid reality by a simple bodily analogy. (3)

But so Proust might , in those thousands of pages with their many tantalizing intuitions about memory and the human mind, Proust might poetically have anticipated what neuro-science can now painstakingly disentangle? So the shoddy, imprecise right brain half is not only about frivolously fragmented make-believe and fantasy? Its intuitions can reach for the truth?

The fact that a poetical intuition seems thus vindicated by ascertainable, scientific fact is strangely moving – as moving as is the knowledge that all those forgotten moments of our lives are floating somewhere in our brain, just waiting for the right stimulus to spring back to life.

Yes, a knowledge almost as consoling as those Proust-passages themselves. Passages that wistfully meditate on the true happiness produced by involuntary recollections, a happiness which no methodical remembering, no looking at photos from our past could bring.
And these involuntary recollections make us happy in such a fresh, confident way, precisely because they bring back utterly forgotten, futile moments which are no part of our laboriously chewed over life-chain.

They make us happy, because the real paradises are the paradises we have lost …. (4)

Relegated to the notes: Proust-quotes and some internal warfare between the two brain-halves

(1) First of all, says the meticulous left brain-half, let’s get rid of the myth of the two brain-halves with their neat split up of mental faculties: logic, words, mathematics on the left and imagination, visual representation, creativity on the right. The two hemispheres share these faculties, it’s only a matter of different processing style: the left concentrates on details and step-by-step reasoning whereas the right goes for general connections and the broad picture. Well yes, smiles the right brain-half: so the notion of “two brain halves” is an excellent metaphor to compare and contrast different mental takes on things: the firm ground of an analytical fact based approach versus the tantalizing leaps of synthetical intuition.

(2) “ Proust-lovers-with-a-thing-for-popular-science”: typically specimens that are neither fish nor fowl – neither able to lose themselves in poetic or mystical raptures nor prone to conducting scientific experiments in their garage. Or perhaps rather: eternally ambivalent specimens – while reading Proust they reflect on the futility of literature – while making themselves useful at work by (eg) logically adding up figures, they lament the job’s lack of meaning and beauty. Also, these creatures are prone to fits of self-education resulting in a collection of popular science books, which they do always diligently start to read and from which they then at best retain some metaphors for understanding Life , but certainly never any useful facts for the practical business of living.

(3) Proust - Le Temps Retrouvé ( Time Lost Recovered? Lost time found again? I’m a lousy Proust translator ….)
Mais au moment où, […], je posai mon pied sur un pavé qui était un peu moins élevé que le précédent, tout mon découragement s’évanouit devant la même félicité qu’à diverses époques de ma vie m’avaient donnée […] , la vue des clochers de Martinville, la saveur d’une madeleine trempée dans une infusion, […]

But at the very moment that I put my foot on a tile that lay a bit higher than the previous one, my despondency vanished in front of the same kind of happiness brought, at different moments of my life, by the sight of the spires of Martinville, the taste of a Madeleine-cake soaked in tea. […]

(4) « Oui, si le souvenir, grâce à l’oubli, n’a pu contracter aucun lien, jeter aucun chaînon entre lui et la minute présente, s’il est resté à sa place, à sa date, s’il a gardé ses distances, son isolement […] , […] il nous fait tout à coup respirer un air nouveau, précisément parce que c’est un air qu’on a respiré autrefois, […] car les vrais paradis sont les paradis qu’on a perdus. »

Yes, if the memory, thanks to the forgetting, has forged no link whatsoever between it and the present minute, if it has stayed at its place, at its date in time, if it has kept its distance, its isolation [..] then it makes us suddenly breathe a new fresh air, precisely because it is an air we have breathed in former days, [..] because the true paradises are the paradises we have lost.

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