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Leonard Shlain Headshot

Why Bush Smirks

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In observing our president's expressions over the years, I became aware of a feature of George Bush's face that revealed more about his inner self than anything issuing forth from his mouth. President Bush has a disconnect between the right side and the left side of his face. While the right side of his mouth and the corner of his right eyes portray a smile, the left side of his mouth and the corners of his left eye convey a scowl. The result is a twisted smirk that has become his trademark expression.

As a vascular surgeon who has operated on carotid arteries to the brain, I have long been interested in the opposing functions performed by the two hemispheres of the human brain. All vertebrates, from fish to fowl have a bi-lobed brain. Each half, with few exceptions, is a mirror image of the other both in appearance and function.

The organization of the human brain when compared to other vertebrate brains occupies the extreme edge of the bell shaped curve. Although the halves of our brain appear identical, each hemisphere is functionally different. The left-brain in right-handed people (and the majority of left- handers, too,) is the seat of language, logic, and one-at-a-time mental faculties that require a sense of linearity, sequence, and time.

In contrast, the right hemisphere excels at holistic thinking and the all-at-once recognition of gestalts and patterns, especially faces; all primarily spatial functions.

Also, there exists a marked contrast between the distribution of emotions to the right and left of the brain's great divide. The majority of emotions have their seat in the right hemisphere but a few reside in the left. Optimism, cheerfulness, and happiness hold sway in the left frontal lobe. Anger, fear, terror, disgust, and sadness, are far more prominently represented in the right. The emotions in the right hemisphere are more primal and are highly attuned to instinctual "fight or flight" mechanisms necessary for a creature to stay alive in a dangerous environment.

The muscles controlling the left side of the face take their orders from the motor neurons in the right brain; the converse holds true for the left brain/ right side of face. Artists, actors, and astute poker players have long known that the left side of a person's face is far more revealing of their inner emotions than is their right side. In the most famous painting in the world, Leonardo placed the shadows around the corner of Mona Lisa's left side of her mouth and eye more than the right because it added to her mystery. Most portraiture lights up the right side and casts the left in shadow. Half hidden in darkness, the left side is a truer portal to the inner emotional state of the subject than is the more prominently displayed, better lit, right side of the face.

Most individual can coordinate both of their hemispheres to produce a symmetrical smile or frown. George Bush seems unable to accomplish this feat in his unguarded moments or when he becomes agitated. His lopsided smirk reveals an inner disconnectedness between the two sides of his brain. And the left sided scowl, and glaring left eye provides a more accurate window into his soul and psyche than does his smiling right. I would further speculate that this disconnect evident in his facial expression might have something to do with the president's unprecedented syntactical mangling of the English language. Sentences inarticulately constructed often belie a disordering of thought processes.

Psychologists have studied the phenomenon of the split face for many years and have accumulated a reservoir of studies that conclusively indicate that the expression of the left side of an individual's face is far more revealing concerning their emotional state than is their whole face.

The next time George Bush appears on television observe the left side of his face only and you will obtain a truer picture of what is in his heart than can be garnered by taking in the gestalt of his entire face. It would appear that not only has George Bush polarized the electorate as no other president in recent history has, but he also has polarized brain hemispheres.

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