If you ever took a college course that began with the prefix neuro-, then you know about the corpus callosum, which is the band of nerves that serves as the main connection between the two hemispheres of the brain. In neurolinguistics, the corpus callosum is a popular subject for undergraduates, because severing it creates the opportunity for stupid neurolinguistic party tricks, e.g.:
Split-brain patients (those who have had their corpus callosum severed) provide evidence for language lateralization. If an object is placed in the left hand of split-brain patient whose vision is cut off, the person cannot name the object, but will know how to use it. The information is sent to the right side of the brain, but cannot be relayed to the left side for linguistic naming. However, if the object is placed in the person’s right hand, the person can immediately name it because the information is sent directly to the left hemisphere.
Intentionally severing the corpus callosum — the surgery is called a corpus callosotomy — is an uncommon but by no means unheard-of surgery, used to help manage severe cases of epilepsy that do not respond to other therapies.
But you’ll get a rather different and fanciful account of the procedure over at Salon, where Chauncey DeVega — you’ll remember him as the ace reporter who claims that I am secretly a black man in the employ of National Review for the purposes of transferring negative stereotypes about urban blacks to rural whites — characterizes the corpus callosotomy as a “heinous medical experiment.”
Years ago in a high school anatomy class, I saw film footage of a man — perhaps a prison inmate or a patient at a mental hospital — who “volunteered” for a heinous medical experiment. His brain was bisected, meaning the left and right spheres were surgically split from one another. He survived the procedure, but his left and right hands now behaved as if they belonged to two different people. The man was told to use his right hand, the one over which he still had conscious control, to seize control of the left hand. The left hand continually escaped, and the two hands essentially began fighting with each other. He begged the doctors for help, but they were too busy obsessively noting every detail of the “subject’s” behavior. Our teacher told us the film came from her “private collection.”
If you are wondering where the anti-science/anti-vaccine mentality comes from, there it is.
“Alien Hand Syndrome,” which is what DeVega is describing, is sometimes associated with corpus callosotomy, though it also may be associated with strokes, Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease, or even migraines. It was for a brief glorious period known as “Dr. Strangelove Syndrome,” until the fuddy-duddies in the scientific community decided that was inappropriate. It shows up from time to time in medically oriented entertainment such as House.
But if you really believe that high-school students are being shown films of prison inmates subjected to torture in the form of experimental brain surgeries, then I know a pizzeria in Chevy Chase that you are going to find just fascinating.