The following article was previously published on The Dangerous Child blog
Unihemispheric Sleep; Unihemispheric Waking
Whales and dolphins live underwater but must come to the surface periodically to breathe. They cannot allow both hemispheres of their brains to drop into deep sleep, else they may not wake to surface in time. Similarly, many birds undergo long migrations and other flights of long duration when they are unable to fall into deep sleep for long periods of time. Their brains are adapted to allow one hemisphere to stay awake while the other hemisphere gets much needed rest.
Can Humans Sleep With Half Their Brain Open?
The human brain, it turns out, is endowed with a less dramatic form of the unihemispheric sleep found in birds and some mammals. For humans, familiarity with a place breeds a deep night’s sleep.
When humans are sleeping in a strange environment — which happens very regularly to people who travel as a matter of course — it seems the left hemisphere is more vigilant to the environment, allowing the right hemisphere to snooze more deeply. More
The sleep scientists who discovered this unilateral phenomenon used advanced brain scanners, which allowed subjects to sleep inside them all night long.
… they found that the sleeping brains showed asymmetrical patterns of sleep activity, with one hemisphere humming along while the other slept. And while the sprightly hemisphere wasn’t fully awake, it was much more active than the other—even responsive to external stimuli. Subjects in the study experiencing FNE, for example, were jolted awake by “deviant” sounds. A creaking door perhaps. Or a shrieking animal. For most of the subjects, the night watchman hemisphere of their brain was the left side, for inexplicable reasons. __ PopSci
Interesting, But So What?
Even during their awake time, animals — and humans — often move through the world “half asleep.” The image of dolphins above shows how the brain allots its sleep/wake time according to three general hemispheric states: L awake/R asleep, R awake/L asleep, and both L and R awake. As mentioned above, as a matter of survival for dolphins, both L and R cannot sleep simultaneously, except for very short time periods. This means that casual observers may not notice whether a dolphin is half awake, or fully awake.
You might think that humans do not have this problem, since humans can usually sleep with both hemispheres at specific, designated times, leaving both hemispheres fully awake to deal with the world at the proper time. Except, it doesn’t always work that way. Individual (left or right) human hemispheres can exhibit signs of sleep while a person is nominally awake, for short times. Most people — even those who have not been forced to stay alert for very long stretches, or for odd hours — will be able to recall brain misfires and somnambulations while awake which are very difficult to explain.
Is Anyone Ever Completely Awake?
The video clip above from the movie “Limitless” is entirely fictional, and yet . . . anyone who is curious and pays just a little attention to the world will have experienced epiphanies — startling moments of exceptional clarity that emerge unsolicited from the depths. How can we seem awake, and then suddenly find ourselves watching our worlds from one or more levels higher up?
These states never seem to last very long, but they suggest the existence of a higher and deeper ocean of experience, in which most of us have only managed to dip our toes.
It is easy to imagine unihemispheric sleep in humans when the two hemispheres have been surgically disconnected from each other — as in “split brain patients.” Patients with uncontrollable epilepsy were sometimes “cured” of global seizures by severing the corpus callosum. Once disconnected, the two hemispheres will often go in different directions, attending to different things.
After the right and left brain are separated, each hemisphere will have its own separate perception, concepts, and impulses to act. Having two “brains” in one body can create some interesting dilemmas. When one split-brain patient dressed himself, he sometimes pulled his pants up with one hand (that side of his brain wanted to get dressed) and down with the other (this side didn’t). Also, once he grabbed his wife with his left hand and shook her violently, so his right hand came to her aid and grabbed the aggressive left hand. However, such conflicts are actually rare. If a conflict arises, one hemisphere usually overrides the other. __ Wikipedia Split Brain
A fascinating topic to be sure, but something similar can take place even when all anatomical connections within the brain remain intact. Such interhemispheric asynchrony has been observed in hypnosis — and anything that happens under formal hypnosis may also tend to happen spontaneously in ordinary life.
The Corpus Callosum is Larger in Women than Men
The more strongly the two hemispheres are connected to each other, the less likely that they will act independently of each other. It has been found that the two brain hemispheres are not as strongly connected in men as they are in women.
In the entire sample (n= 316), controlling for brain size and age, the average CCA [corpus callosum cross sectional area] was significantly (P< 0.03) larger in females. The difference favoring females was more pronounced in the young adults cohort (P< 0.0005). These results provide strong additional evidence that the CCA is larger in females after correcting for the confounding effect of brain size. ___ http://cercor.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2012/08/09/cercor.bhs253.full
More, persons who are easily hypnotised — and can readily block pain perception under hypnosis — have been found to have larger corpus callosi, at least in the anterior portion.
Only the highly hypnotizable subjects (HHs) who eliminated pain perception were included in the present study. These HHs, who demonstrated more effective attentional and inhibitory capabilities, had a significantly (P < 0.003) larger (31.8%) rostrum, a corpus callosum area involved in the allocation of attention and transfer of information between prefrontal cortices, than low hypnotizable subjects (LHs). These results provide support to the neuropsychophysiological model that HHs have more effective frontal attentional systems implementing control, monitoring performance and inhibiting unwanted stimuli from conscious awareness, than LHs. __ http://brain.oxfordjournals.org/content/127/8/1741
The anterior parts of the corpus callosum also seem to be enlarged in meditation practitioners, suggesting that meditation may alter the actual morphology of certain parts of the brain via the brain plasticity of selective use.
Hypnosis vs. Meditation
Although superficial similarities between hypnosis and meditation are readily apparent, we should be aware of the important differences between the two things. Hypnosis can be thought of as a highly focused “spotlight,” while meditation more closely resembles a broadbeam “floodlight.” A hypnotic trance blanks out peripheral phenomena, including ordinary sensations such as pain, discomfort, or embarassment. Meditation — particularly mindfulness meditation — opens the portals of awareness to allow an “eagle’s eye view” of one’s internal and external setting.
Using hypnosis, one can “disconnect” different circuits of brain activity from each other, functionally, on a subconscious level. Mindfulness meditation enlarges the borders of consciousness to allow normally suppressed stimuli to reach mental awareness. At that point, the conscious mind can often sort the relevant from the irrelevant, and alter subsequent consciousness.
Who Wants to Bother with All This Hocus Pocus?
Very few people indeed. Most would rather pop a pill, swallow a draught, lose themselves in a social setting, or otherwise avoid the question of whether they are entirely sleepwalking through their lives — or only doing so halfway. But shouldn’t we want to train our children differently, to be less slaves of our trance states and more aware of their own decision making and life choices?
Fortunately, for the Tech-Oriented Parent, There is Neurofeedback
Neurofeedback uses brainwave and other neurofunctional real-time metrics to allow a person to shape the workings of his own brain. Neurofeedback has proven exceptionally effective for treating ADHD and for brain rehabilitation after injury. The technique has also been useful for treating addictions, depression, autism, migraines, and a range of other dysfunctional states.
And although there has not been much written on the use of neurofeedback for enlarging conscious awareness, a number of neuroresearchers are doing work on that very project. This is not exactly what I am referring to, but consider:
A recent development in the field is a conceptual approach called the Coordinated Allocation of Resource Model (CAR) of brain functioning which states that specific cognitive abilities are a function of specific electrophysiological variables which can overlap across different cognitive tasks. The activation database guided EEG biofeedback approach initially involves evaluating the subject on a number of academically relevant cognitive tasks and compares the subject’s values on the QEEG measures to a normative database, in particular on the variables that are related to success at that task. __ Wikipedia Neurofeedback
Neurofeedback has also been used to improve the performances of musicians, dancers, actors, athletes, and other persons who make a living from highly focused skills.
Neurofeedback is readily distinguished from ordinary hypnosis and meditation by neurofeedback’s ability to monitor real-time brain activity in particular brain circuits and anatomical centres. “Conscious” intervention on normally unconscious brain processes can then be fine-tuned to suit the goals of clients and their parents.
The Objective is to Learn to Achieve States of Highly Functional Awareness
Dangerous Children learn to achieve heightened situational awareness (and mindfulness) as part of their training. This allows them to anticipate and deal with problems before they happen. The parents of many Dangerous Children in training may also opt for neurofeedback training, where it may be helpful.
The neurological signs of “sleeping while awake” can be too subtle for most available intruments used in everyday neurofeedback training. They also tend to be too fleeting and unpredictable to be easily addressed in most conventional programmes of neurofeedback.
But a careful human observer can usually catch another person who is falling into a trance, in most situations. That is where “life coaches,” parents, and mentors who have some training in Ericksonian hypnosis and similar trance-aware disciplines can make their mark on a Dangerous Child’s future ability to choose his own path on multiple time scales.
Parents of Dangerous Children Must Learn to Pay Attention
Raising a Dangerous Child is an exhausting prospect. Fortunately, Dangerous Children begin to take up the slack of their own training at a surprisingly early age. Even so, parents, coaches, mentors, and helpers need to keep their eyes open so as to be able to intervene at key developmental bifurcation points.