Better Than Rose-Colored Glasses?

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Mark, a graduate student, was struggling with a psychosis which had first paralyzed him with so much anxiety that he couldn’t attend class, and then, until a brief hospitalization, convinced him that he was Jesus, misunderstood by the world. One day his therapist, Dr. Fredric Schiffer, C’67, asked him to put on a pair of special glasses that blocked most of his vision except on his far-left side. “His face screwed up and he said, ‘I don’t trust you doctor.'” Then Schiffer had him wear another pair of glasses that permitted vision only out of his far-right side. “He becomes absolutely normal,” Schiffer recalls in wonder. “He laughs. He says, ‘Of course I trust you doctor.'”
   How can one explain this abrupt change from a pair of spectacles? The answers lie, according to Schiffer, a psychiatrist on the faculty at Harvard Medical School, in dual-brain psychology. According to Schiffer, the author of Of Two Minds: The Revolutionary Science of Dual-Brain Psychology (The Free Press), there exist in ordinary people autonomous mental functions in each hemisphere of the brain. “In essence, we are of two minds.”
   Schiffer discovered that by limiting vision to one extreme side or the other — in order to stimulate the opposite hemisphere in the brain — he could induce marked personality changes in about a third of the patients he treats for anxiety, depression, addiction, and other disorders. “One side felt more anxious, more generally neurotic; the other side felt safer and generally had a more mature perspective on life. They felt they were the same person — they didn’t have a change of personal identity — but their feelings were dramatically different.”
   Since the 19th century, scientists have been fascinated with the fact that the brain has two hemispheres, and numerous experiments have been conducted in the past 40 years with split-brain patients (who have severed corpus callosums — the bundle of nerves that connects the left and right cerebral hemispheres). But Schiffer’s work, using lateral visual fields to change emotions, as well as his theory about the psychology behind it, is new. He described his research on a recent episode of the television show 20-20.
   “The idea here is that our personality is, in large part, determined by the relationship between our two minds,” Schiffer says. “Sometimes one of the two sabotages the other; sometimes one dominates the other; sometimes the two work harmoniously together.” About 60 percent of the people Schiffer has tested indicate they feel different, depending on which goggles they are wearing. Using one’s hands or an envelope to cover the eyes produces similar effects, he says.
   Schiffer worked with Mark, the graduate student, in subsequent sessions, helping him converse back and forth with the two conflicted sides. “He got better very quickly, and he continues to do well,” Schiffer says, adding that the student salvaged his academic career and went on to write some “monumental pieces of work in his field.”
   Communicating between the two sides is “actually very easy,” according to Schiffer. “If on one side your view is that you’re in danger and you’re worthless, and the other side says, ‘No, I’m safe and valuable,’ it kind of hits you in the head. It’s so easy then to talk about the troubled side or ‘the little boy’ or ‘the little girl.'” Sometimes, he says, even though this condition is different from multiple personality disorder, it’s helpful to call the two sides by different names.
   “In my book I give the example of a case where I talked to the person’s troubled side (named Earl), which was attacking his other side (named Don). I kind of yelled at Earl and told him to ‘Cut it out.’ At the end of that session, the patient commented that he felt like Earl “‘was attacking me. It was like you pulled him off me.'” But often, Schiffer explains, “the troubled side is both the victim and perpetrator” — like a troubled child — “so you have to love it and nurture it.”

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