Friday, May 30, 2008

Right-brained epiphanies, Part II: when stroke strikes the left hemisphere

This past Sunday's New York Times Styles Section reports on the most drastic right-brained epiphany I've ever heard of.

On December 10th, 1996, Jill Bolte Taylor, then a neuroscientist at Harvard's brain research center, suffered a left-hemisphere stroke and lost analytical functions like speech, numeracy, and literacy.  Then came eight years of recovery.

And Nirvana:

Within minutes after the golf-ball sized clot popped a blood vessel, and her left lobe began to fail, Taylor felt great:

I felt like a genie liberated from its bottle. The energy of my spirit seemed to flow like a great whale gliding through a sea of silent euphoria.

Taylor, now the author of My Stroke of Insight, says she is a new person who “can step into the consciousness of my right hemisphere” and be “one with all that is.”

Quoting the Times:

The incessant chatter that normally filled her mind disappeared. Her everyday worries — about a brother with schizophrenia and her high-powered job — untethered themselves from her and slid away.

Her perceptions changed, too. She could see that the atoms and molecules making up her body blended with the space around her; the whole world and the creatures in it were all part of the same magnificent field of shimmering energy.

Despite her stroke, Taylor continues, as the Times puts it, to "battle her left brain for the better." 

"Nirvana exists right now," she says. "There is no doubt that it is a beautiful state and that we can get there." Quoting the Times:
No meditation is necessary, she says, just the belief that the left brain can be tamed.

In her own life, Taylor has lightened her load and stops to smell the roses:

Her house is on a leafy cul-de-sac minutes from Indiana University, which she attended as an undergraduate and where she now teaches at the medical school.

Her foyer is painted a vibrant purple. She greets a stranger at the door with a warm hug. When she talks, her pale blue eyes make extended contact.

As for the rest of the world, Dr. Taylor says:

I believe that the more time we spend choosing to run the deep inner peace circuitry of our right hemispheres, the more peace we will project into the world, and the more peaceful our planet will be.

Perhaps more revealing than Taylor's insights is the reaction they've provoked. As the Times notes:

Her message, that people can choose to live a more peaceful, spiritual life by sidestepping their left brain, has resonated widely.  

After her speech at the Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) conference was posted as a video on TED’s Web site, she became, in the Times words, "a mini-celebrity." 

More than two million viewers have watched her talk, and about 20,000 more a day continue to do so. An interview with her was also posted on Oprah Winfrey’s Web site, and she was chosen as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world for 2008.

She also receives more than 100 e-mail messages a day from fans.

Buried in this otherwise gushing article, we should note, are the following caveats:

Left-brain injuries don’t necessarily lead to blissful enlightenment; people sometimes sink into a helplessly moody state: their emotions run riot. Dr. Taylor was also helped because her left hemisphere was not destroyed, and that probably explains how she was able to recover fully.


On Web sites like and in Eckhart Tolle discussion groups, people debate whether she is truly enlightened or just physically damaged and confused.

For further editorial balance, I believe the Times should now seek out someone who loses right-brain function and has the following epiphanies:

1. Being less controlled by wild, unpredictable, reality-warping passions, and more by clear-headed rationality, brings me a state of inner calm like I've never experienced before.

2. Living and working hard in a busy city, surrounded by bookstores, museums, and intellectuals, sure beats living out in the sticks in an ever more limited world of my own.

3. The more time we spend choosing to run the deep inner logic circuitry of our left hemispheres, the more calm, unprejudiced rationality we will project into the world, and the more peaceful our planet will be. 

But perhaps such a person wouldn't generate quite the same amount of fan mail as Taylor does?


Anonymous said...

I read "My Stroke of Insight" in one sitting - I couldn't put it down. I laughed. I cried. It was a fantastic book (I heard it's a NYTimes Bestseller and I can see why!), but I also think it will be the start of a new, transformative Movement! No one wants to have a stroke as Jill Bolte Taylor did, but her experience can teach us all how to live better lives. Her speech was one of the most incredibly moving, stimulating, wonderful videos I've ever seen. Her Oprah Soul Series interviews were fascinating. They should make a movie of her life so everyone sees it. This is the Real Deal and gives me hope for humanity.

lefty said...

I'm wondering if there's a time for this type of comment. It struck me as somewhat canned, and so I did a blog search and found it posted on every blog I checked (four in total). Do publishers actually hire people to do this?

K9Sasha said...

Her message, that people can choose to live a more peaceful, spiritual life by sidestepping their left brain, has resonated widely.

But she didn't choose to sidestep her left brain! She had a stroke that cause brain damage. Somehow I don't think that's the same thing (or am I being one of those rational right-brained people in bringing this up?).

lefty said...

Given this, we must wonder about the rationality of all those people for whom her message has purportedly resonated.

Catherine Johnson said...

I'm confused by the whole thing because back when I was writing Shadow Syndromes, the left brain was the happy brain - and the happy confabulator - and the right brain was the "sad brain."



Here it is:

The researchers had never seen anything like it. Worried that something might be wrong with their equipment or methods, they brought in more monks, as well as a control group of college students inexperienced in meditation. The monks produced gamma waves that were 30 times as strong as the students'. In addition, larger areas of the meditators' brains were active, particularly in the left prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for positive emotions.

Davidson realized that the results had important implications for ongoing research into the ability to change brain function through training.

Buddha on the Brain