Monday, May 26, 2008

Harvard Brain Scientist Explains Bliss

A Superhighway to Bliss is the most read article at the New York Times web site. So I checked it out. It's about how a stroke at the age of 37 led a Harvard brain scientist to experience bliss and come back from that to explain her experience in scientific terms.

The story reports on the Jill Bolte Taylor's stroke:
Within minutes, her left lobe — the source of ego, analysis, judgment and context — began to fail her. Oddly, it felt great.

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.

And then explains the role of the two sides of the brain:
Today, she says, she is a new person, one who “can step into the consciousness of my right hemisphere” on command and be “one with all that is.”

To her it is not faith, but science. She brings a deep personal understanding to something she long studied: that the two lobes of the brain have very different personalities. Generally, the left brain gives us context, ego, time, logic. The right brain gives us creativity and empathy. For most English-speakers, the left brain, which processes language, is dominant. Dr. Taylor’s insight is that it doesn’t have to be so.

The Times even interviews two religious and spiritual thinkers I've read and respect. First Sharon Salzberg:
“People are so taken with it,” said Sharon Salzberg, a founder of the Insight Mediation Society in Barre, Mass. “I keep getting that video in e-mail. I must have 100 copies.”

She is excited by Dr. Taylor’s speech because it uses the language of science to describe an occurrence that is normally ethereal. Dr. Taylor shows the less mystically inclined, she said, that this experience of deep contentment “is part of the capacity of the human mind.”

And Karen Armstrong:

Karen Armstrong, a religious historian who has written several popular books including one on the Buddha, says there are odd parallels between his story and Dr. Taylor’s.

“Like this lady, he was reluctant to return to this world,” she said. “He wanted to luxuriate in the sense of enlightenment.”

But, she said, “the dynamic of the religious required that he go out into the world and share his sense of compassion.”

This is how the experience affected Dr. Taylor's life:

she has dialed back her once loaded work schedule. 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.

And regarding organized religion and it's relationship to brain science, in light of her personal experience:
her father is an Episcopal minister and she was raised in his church, she cannot be counted among the traditionally faithful. “Religion is a story that the left brain tells the right brain,” she said.

Still, Dr. Taylor says, “nirvana exists right now.”

Okay, I'm off to my meditation mat to see if my right brain (empathy, creativity) can overflow my left (ego, context, time, logic, stories).


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.

Anonymous said...

I loved the beautifully written "My Stroke of Insight - a Brain Scientist's Personal Journey" by Jill Bolte Taylor and her incredible talk on TED dot com. Dr. Taylor's unique perspective as a Harvard neuroanatomist having a stroke, combined with her sensitivity and awareness, produced something as powerful as I've ever witnessed. I want to share Dr Taylor's story far and wide because it's a wonderful story and a great book to read, but more importantly, this is the message we desperately need if we are to survive as a species.