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  • Current Brain Research and the Composing Process: A Call For InteractionVol. 44, No. 2, January 1982
  • Monica R. Weis

I wish to God that some neurologist would sit down and figure out how the improviser's brain works, how he selects, out of hundreds of thousands of possibilities, the notes he does and at the speed he does—how, in God's name, his mind works so damned fast! and why, when the notes come out right, they are right…. Composing is a slow, arduous, obvious, inch-by-inch process, whereas improvisation is a lightning mystery. In fact, it's the creative mystery of our age.1

Alex Wilder's wish, quoted in a 1973 New Yorker, articulates for the field of jazz the basic question facing serious teachers of composition. What really happens in the composing process? Why does a flash of intuition often make the crucial difference between a merely artificial piece of writing and a sincere authentic voice? Not only why does it make a difference, but precisely how does it make a difference? In focusing on this question, I would like to summarize in this paper more briefly than good scholarship recommends, current areas of brain research that provide information about hemispheric asymmetry—information that should influence the direction of English education.

It has long been suspected that the two cortical hemispheres of the brain are concerned with different operations or modes of knowing, i.e., the left hemisphere, which controls the production of speech, perceives the world logically, critically, and sequentially; whereas the right hemisphere is involved in intuitive, holistic patterning, visual, spatial, musical apprehension. Because thinking is such a complex operation of largely unmeasurable interacting elements, no precise and conclusive data really isolates and explains what happens. However, by examining patients who, for medical reasons, have only one operative hemisphere, neurosurgeons and scientists are discovering some surprising information about brain activity. Let me briefly cite a few examples. A.R. Luria, the Russian psychologist, worked with a musician who, after his stroke, composed better music than before his illness. Although he could no longer speak or write down the notes, he could play them and remember them. It would seem that some dimension of his musical ability was developed or released after his speech faculties were impaired. In effect, he was communicating in a [End Page 225] new way through music.2 Similarly, it is not unusual for a speech or physical therapist to succeed in getting some aphasic stroke victims to write, indicating that perhaps cerebral integration can overcome or bypass the injured site.3 Recently, at NY University of Rehabilitation, Andrea Glass taught an 84-year-old woman who could neither speak nor understand speech to communicate via shaped and colored plastic symbols.4

Experiments with split-brain individuals (epileptics who have undergone commissurotomy, which severs the corpus callosum between the cortical hemispheres to reduce the occurrence of seizures), support this data and provide the additional advantage of presenting problem-solving tasks to two separate and functioning brains. By using special contact lenses, information presented to the left visual field (LVF) is processed only in the right hemisphere (RH) and information presented to the right visual field (RVF) is processed only in the left hemisphere (LH). Milner and Taylor (1972) found that the right hemisphere demonstrated superior visuospatial performance. When a design was presented to the right hemisphere, the left hand drew more accurate pictures than when the design was presented to the left hemisphere for the right hand response.5 This is not just a case of better muscle coordination, as has been demonstrated in another experiment by Michael Gazzaniga. His split-brain patient was asked to duplicate an arrangement of blocks and then to duplicate a 3-D drawing of a cube. The right hand (responding to information processed by the left hemisphere) was unable to perform either task, that is, the left hemisphere could not process the visual and spatial information being presented to it.6

In addition to visuo-spatial perception, the right hemisphere seems capable of generating emotional reactions. Sperry and Gazzaniga flashed a picture of a nude to the LVF-RH of a split-brain...


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