View Full Version : Vonnegut, Roger Sperry, & Sync

James Brody
April 8th, 2007, 10:31 AM
Vonnegut's little story, "Harrison Bergeron," had greater impact on me through my computer screen than on the printed text. One difference was that I had to scroll every few lines on the 'Net but skimmed the book.

Why the difference in impact? Did the electronic version require time for emotional processing, time for the latency of cross talk between my cerebral hemispheres?

My experience may be peculiar but not restricted to me!
- Head injury locus can introduce a chattering fool or a mute obsessive. The former is scattered and has a better attitude about the injury and its impact, the latter is often suicidal. Interpretation has been that it "knows its injury and its permanence and wants out of it."

- Movie scripts: I find the book version of a favorite movie to be disappointing and shallow. The screen version not only gives more details and triggers but also control the pace of information. Some in the audience can even go for popcorn and return! And the talkers in an audience may distract and irritate me but themselves exhibit the memory of a telephone operator ..."Hello, I'll connect you," followed by a click that obliterates not only you forever but also her memories of you as if you never happened.

- Truss (2003) describes "scripto continuo." A medieval style with no gaps between words and one that doesnotrequirecommasperiodsorsemicolons. Is the effect of commas, periods, sentences that of allowing for cross-talk and emotional nuances?

There are two points of relevance:

1) Kuramoto informed us that similar entities, weakly connected, move into synchrony (Strogatz, 2003). True for pendulums and traffic, true for mates and perhaps true for our cerebral hemispheres. As I note elsewhere, an oscillator, a negative feedback arrangement, is more stable than a linear one. Thermostats do this, so do the switches that regulate our internal temperature, blood pressure, and sugar levels. And conflict or ambivalence play the same role as a brass box on your wall!
2) Sperry remarked in his 1981 Nobel: "The right hemisphere specialities were all, of course, nonverbal, nonmathematical and nonsequential in nature. They were largely spatial and imagistic, of the kind where a single picture or mental image is worth a thousand words...The emphasis meantime became shifted somewhat from that of an intrinsic antagonism and mutual incompatibility of left and right processing to that of a mutual and supportive complementarity." (emph added, JB)



Goldberg, E. (2001) The Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes and the Civilized Mind. NY: Oxford University Press.

Sperry RW (1981) Some effects of disconnecting the cerebral hemispheres. Nobel Lecture. http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1981/sperry-lecture.html
Strogatz, S. (2003) Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order. NY: Hyperion.
Truss L (2003) Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. NY: Gotham
Vonnegut K (1961) Harrison Bergeron. In Kurt Vonnegut (1968/2006) Welcome to the Monkey House NY: Random House, 7-14.

James Brody
April 9th, 2007, 02:04 PM
I was frightened by the idea of a schism that depended on nature as much as nurture, a divide between my mother's contributions and my father's and that would lead me to their choices and memories. I was also worried to paranoia that 1) that someone else might think of it first and 2) my psychologist associates might read my mind and end me before I ended my research.

Ten years have elapsed.

In April 1998 George Howe Colt put a magnificent piece in LIFE, founded on behavior genetics and making the case for his daughter as a mosaic of him and his wife and for himself as one of his father:

"When I look at myself, it seems there's less of me than there once was. At a recent party, schmoozing with one last guest on my way out the door, I suddenly thought, I'm acting exactly like my father! Having spent my youth fighting to forge my own identity, I find, increasingly, that I resemble the very parent against whom I worked so hard to rebel: his social ease, his sense of humor?and, now that I am in my forties, his thinning hair and slight potbelly. Indeed, as I get older, I feel that instead of adding layers, I am shedding skins. In becoming more like my parents, I am becoming more myself. I am surprised but delighted that it all feels so comfortable?not an imprisoning but a coming Home." (George Howe Colt, 1998, p 50). (I'm so damned jealous of this paragraph!)

Vonnegut, however, whipped us both by almost twenty years in his story of an investment fund manager and his client, Herbert Foster. The fund manager is nameless but successful and charming, a wandering assayer who measured gold in a man's pocket by his manner, dress, and home.*

Foster worked several jobs, scrimps on nickels, and spends almost never on himself. "My client...hadn't had a new suit in three years; he never owned more than one pair of shoes at a time. He worried about payments on his secondhand car, and ate tuna and cheese instead of meat because meat was too expensive...The Fosters were going through hell...television was something they had to go two doors down the street to watch..."
Mrs. Foster, plain and shrewish, stayed home and let her huband support her and their young son who studies classical piano. Herb, however, had about $800,000 in securities and another $50,000 he accumulated on a salary of about $6000 per year, assets completely unknown to Mrs. Foster.

Vonnegut pivots this story around a set of pictures on the Foster's mantle: one picture is of Herbert's mother whom the investor mistakes for Mrs. Foster and the other is of Mrs. Foster's father, a saintly sort of fellow. Herbert's father is, however, missing from the mantle and is not to be mentioned. The old man "...preferred playing jazz piano in dives and breathing smoke and drinking gin, to his wife and child and home and job. Herbert's mother finally said he had to choose between one life or the other."
The investor wants to contact Herbert and decides to visit the restaurant where Herbert is the bookkeeper. The restaurant, however, was a bar and no one heard of Herbert Foster.

"Then Herbert Foster, looking drab and hunted picked his way through the crowd...There was no question that being in the place was absolute, humiliating hell for him...but a light flashed at the far end of the aisle the crowd made for him and a tiny white piano sparkled there like jewelry. The bartender set a drink on the piano...Herbert...took a cigarette from his breast pocket and lighted it...Herbert Foster disappeared. In his place sat an excited stranger, his hands poised like claws. Suddenly he struck, and a spasm of dirty, low-down, gorgeous jazz shook the air, a hot changing wraith of the twenties...Firehouse Harris, his father's son, three nights out of seven."

The point here: careful observers sometimes find both common sense and profound truths in the behavior of individuals.


* Vonnegut sometimes uses salesmen and fix-it men as his reporters, average guys but with their own quirks who become both subjects for us to study and our "honest." Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841) used the same device in Hero of Our Time, the adventures of a military psychopath and his travels through Caucasian villages. For that matter, so did Job's author: "I alone have escaped to tell thee..."

Brody J (1995) Here Comes Granddad Again. Presentation to Spring-Ford Rotary Club, June 7, Royersford, PA.
Brody J (1997) Here comes granddad again. Posted on Behavior OnLine at http://www.behavior.net/bolforum/message/27.
Colt, G. H. (1998) Were you born that way? Life. April, pp. 38-50.
Harrington A (1989) Medicine, Mind, and the Double Brain: A Study of 19th Century Thought. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Vonnegut K (1951) The Foster Portfolio. In Kurt Vonnegut (1968/2006) Welcome to the Monkey House NY: Random House, 59-74.
Wigan A (1844/2006) A New View of Insanity: The Duality of Mind. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing.