Roger Sperry

Roger Sperry

Roger W. Sperry was an American Psychobiologist who discovered that the human brain is actually made up of two minds. He found out that both the left and right parts of the human brain have specialized functions and that the two sides can operate independently.

Roger Sperry was born on August 20, 1913 in Hartford, Connecticut. Sperry was raised by his mother since his father died when he was only 11 years old. Up till high school, Sperry was educated at local public schools after which he obtained a scholarship to Oberlin College in Ohio where he majored in English. However, his interest developed in undergraduate psychology courses taught by R.H. Stetson, an expert on the physiology of speech. After completing a BA in English in 1935, for two years, Sperry worked with Stetson as a graduate assistant moving on to earning an MA in psychology in 1937.

Extremely dedicated to his field, Sperry began working on research projects at the University of Chicago where he worked under the wing renowned biologist Paul Weiss, Sperry conducted research on the organization of the central nervous system. Scientists of that time held the belief that the connections of the nervous system had to be very exact to work properly. Weiss negated the theory by surgically crossing a subject’s nerve connections after which the subject’s behavior did not change. Weiss concluded that it was not necessary for a nerve to connect to any particular location to function correctly. Sperry tested Weiss’s claim by performing his own experiment. He surgically crossed the nerves that controlled the hind leg muscles of a rat. According to Weiss’s theory each nerve should eventually learn to control the muscle to which it was now connected but when this did not happen, Sperry was able to disprove Weiss’s research. This became the basis of Sperry’s doctoral dissertation, ‘Functional results of crossing nerves and transposing muscles in the fore and hind limbs of the rat’. In 1941, Roger Sperry earned a PhD in zoology from the University of Chicago. Sperry conducted more experiments to prove that genetic mechanisms determine some basic behavioral patterns.

In 1941, Sperry began working in the laboratory of the famous psychologist Karl S. Lashley. In 1942, Lashley became director of the Yerkes Laboratories of Primate Biology in Orange Park, Florida where Sperry joined him on a Harvard biology research fellowship. During this time, Sperry disproved some Gestalt psychology theories as well as some theories of Lashley.

In 1946, Sperry became an assistant professor at the University of Chicago. In 1954 he transferred to the California Institute of Technology where he conducted research on split-brain functions that he had first investigated when he worked at the Yerkes Laboratory. Over the years, through his research and findings, Sperry shattered many important beliefs of scientists and neurosurgeons. By late 1960s, Sperry had begun publishing technical papers on his split-brain findings. His work and the importance of his findings were recognized and he was given the prestigious Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award along with $15,000 grant in 1979. In 1981, Roger Sperry was awarded the Nobel Prize for his contribution to the fields of medicine and psychology. He shared it with two other scientists, Torsten N. Wieseland David H. Hubel.

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