What is a Human Brain? Part III

Jill Taylor brain imageOn the morning of December 10th, 1966, Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D., a Harvard –trained neuro anatomist, experienced a massive stroke when a blood vessel exploded in the left hemisphere of her brain. The image on the left is a stained glass rendition of the human -brain that, as part of her recovery process, took her eight months to create. (Note: In addition to being a brain scientist, she is also an artist and a musician).

As her damaged left hemisphere ~ the rational. grounded, detail and time-oriented one ~ gradually ceased to function to the point where she could neither walk, talk, read, or write, she became more aware of the functioning of the right hemisphere and experienced what she would later describe as the “feelings of tranquility, safety, blessedness, euphoria and omniscience “(Oneness).

Ten years after that event her book, My STROKE of INSIGHT, A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey was first published. However the quotations that I have cited below are taken from the First Viking edition (Viking Penguin, New York, 2008).

But before I do that I want to mention that there is a great contrast between Iain Mc Gilchrist’s wide ranging, and what one medical friend called “esoteric” approach (See Part I), and her very personal examination of how the two hemispheres interact.

She writes:

I remember that first day of the stroke with terrific bitter-sweetness. In the absence of the normal functioning of my left orientation association area, my perception of my physical boundaries was no longer limited to where my skin met air,. 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 quiet euphoria. Finer than the finest of pleasures we can experience as physical beings, this absence of physical boundary was one of glorious bliss. As my consciousness dwelled in a flow of sweet tranquility, it was obvious to me that I would never be able to squeeze the enormousness of my spirit back inside this tiny cellular matrix…. My escape into bliss as a magnificent alternative to the daunting sense of mourning and devastation I felt every time i was coaxed back into some type of interaction with the percolating world outside of me.

My entire self-concept shifted as I no longer perceived myself as a single, a solid, an entity with boundaries that separated me from the entities around me. I understood that at the most elementary level I am fluid. Of course I am fluid! Everything around us, about us, among us, within us and between us is made up of atoms and molecules vibrating in space. Although the ego center of our language centre prefers defining our self as individual and solid, most of us are aware that we are made up of trillions of cells, gallons of water, and ultimately everything about us exists in a constant and dynamic state of activity. My left hemisphere had been trained to perceive myself as a solid, separate from others. Now, released from that restricted circuitry, my right hemisphere relished in its attachment to the eternal flow. I was no longer isolated and alone. My soul was as big as the universe and frolicked with glee in a boundless sea.

Although I rejoiced in my perception of connection to all that is, I shuddered at the awareness that I was no longer a normal human being. How on earth would I exist as a member of the human race with this heightened perception that we are each a part of it all, and that the life force energy within each of us contains the power of the universe? How could I fit in with our society when I walk the earth with no fear? I was, by anyone’s standards no longer normal. In my own unique way, I had become severely mentally ill. And I must say, there was both freedom and challenge for me in recognizing that our perception of the external world, and our relationship to it, is a product of our neurological circuitry. For all those years of my life I really had been a figment of my own imagination!

I now existed in a world between worlds. I could no longer relate to people outside of me, and yet my life had not been extinguished. I was not only an oddity to those around me, but on the inside, I was an oddity to myself.

I felt so detached from my ability to move my body with any oomph that I truly believed I would never be able to get this collection of cells to perform again. Wasn’t it interesting that although I could not walk or talk, understand language, read or write, or even roll my body over, I knew that I was okay? The now off-line intellectual mind of my left hemisphere no longer inhibited my innate awareness that I was the miraculous power of life. I knew I was different now ~ but never once did my right mind indicate that I was ‘less than’ what I had been before. I was simply a being of light radiating life into the world. Regardless of whether or not I had a body or brain that could connect me to the world of others, I saw myself as a cellular masterpiece. In the absence of my left hemisphere’s negative judgement, I perceived myself as perfect, whole, and beautiful just the way I was,

She then points out that although she was mentally disabled she was not unconscious. Hence the other programmes running in her body enabled her to remember everything. So she ended this particular chapter of her book, which described her condition on arrival at the Emergency Department of the Massachusetts General Hospital, to which she had been transferred, this way:

I felt suspended between two worlds, caught between two perfectly opposite planes of reality. For me, hell existed inside the pain of this wounded body as it failed miserably in any attempt to interact with the external world, while heaven existed in consciousness that soared in eternal bliss. And yet, somewhere within me, there was a jubilant being, thrilled that I had survived.

Many pages later, she began the story of her decision to make a recovery ~ “was I willing to put forth the effort to try? ~ with these words:

In order for me to choose the chaos of recovery over the peaceful tranquility of the divine bliss that I had found in the absence of the judgement of my left mind, I had to reframe my perspective from ‘ Why do I have to go back? ‘ to ‘Why did I get to come to this place of silence?’’ I realized that the blessing I had received from this experience was the knowledge that deep internal peace is available to anyone at any time. I believe the experience of Nirvana exists in the consciousness of our right hemisphere, and that at any moment, we can choose to hook into that part of our brain….

With this awareness, I became excited about what a difference my recovery could make in the lives of others….I imagined a world filled with happy and peaceful people and i became motivated to endure the agony I would have to face in the name of recovery. My stroke of insight would be: Peace is only a thought away, and all we have to do to access it is silence the voice of our dominating left mind.

[However] , The question I faced over and over again was, Do I have to regain the affect, emotion or personality trait that was neurologically linked to the memory or ability that I wanted to recover? For instance, would it be possible for me to recover my perception of my self, where I exist as a single, solid, separate from the whole without … [also] …recovering the cells associated with my egotism, intense desire to be argumentative, or fear of separation or death? Could I value money without hooking into the neurological loops of lack, greed, or selfishness? …. Most important, could I retain my newfound sense of connection with the universe in the presence of my left brain’s individuality? …. Frankly, I didn’t want to give up Nirvana. What price would my right hemisphere consciousness have to pay so I could once again be judged as normal?

And she then shares some concerns that significantly mirror those of Iain McGilchrist:

Modern neuroscientists seem satisfied intellectualizing about the functional asymmetries of our two hemispheres from a neurological perspective, but there has been minimal conversation pertaining to the psychological or personality differences contained within these two structures. Most commonly, the character of our right mind has been ridiculed and portrayed in an unflattering light, simply because it does not understand verbal language or comprehend linear thought. In the case of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde analogy, our right hemisphere personality is depicted as uncontrollable, potentially violent, moronic, rather despicable ignoramus, which is not even conscious and without whom we would probably be better off! In vast contrast, our left mind has routinely been touted as linguistic, sequential, methodical, rational, smart, and the seat of our consciousness.

As a result … [of my stroke] … I have gained a clear delineation of the two very distinct characters cohabiting my cranium. The two halves of my brain don’t just perceive and think in different ways at a neurological level, but they demonstrate very different values depending on the types of information they perceive, and thus exhibit very different personalities. My stroke of insight is that at the core of my right hemisphere consciousness is a character that is directly connected to my feeling of deep inner peace. It is completely committed to the expression of peace, love, joy, and compassion in the world.

My goal during this process of recovery has been not only to find a healthy balance between the functional abilities of my two hemispheres, but also to have more say about which character dominates my perspective at any given moment.

[Consequently], the portion of my left mind that I chose not to recover was the part of my left hemisphere that had the potential to be mean, worry incessantly, or be verbally abusive to myself or others. Frankly, I just didn’t like the way these attitudes felt physiologically inside my body. My chest felt tight, I could feel my blood pressure rise, and the tension in my brow would give me a headache. In addition, I wanted to leave behind any of my old emotional circuits that automatically stimulated the instant replay of painful memories…. With lots of effort, I have consciously chosen to recover my left mind’s ego centre without giving renewed energy to some of those old circuits.

And she begins Chapter 17, entitled Own Your Power, by providing some useful physiological evidence about how we can influence some of what she calls the automatic circuitry operating in our brains, about which she will later remind us ~ and this is a very humbling thought~  Ultimately, everything we experience is a product of our cells and their circuitry. She writes, and this is a New Age term too,:

I define responsibility (response-ability) as the ability to choose how we respond to stimulation coming in through our sensory systems at any moment in time. Although there are certain limbic system (emotional) programs that can be triggered automatically it takes less than 90 seconds for one of these programs to be triggered, surge through our body, and then be completely flushed out of our blood stream…. My anger response, for example, is … [one such response] … and I have a physiological experience. Within 90 seconds from the initial trigger, the chemical component of my anger has completely dissipated from my blood and my automatic response is over. If, however, I remain angry after those 90 seconds have passed, then it is because I have chosen to let that circuit continue to run. Moment by moment, I make the choice to either hook into my neurocircuitry or move back into the present moment, allowing that reaction to melt away as fleeting physiology.

I believe it is vital to our health that we pay very close attention to how much time we spend hooked into the circuitry of anger, or the depths of despair. Getting caught up in these emotionally charged loops for long periods of time can have devastating consequences on our physical and mental well-being because of the power they have over our emotional and physical circuitry. However, with that said, it is equally important that we honour these emotions when they surge through us … [so] … Finding the balance between observing our circuitry and engaging with our circuitry is essential to healing…. The healthiest way I know how to move through an emotion effectively is to surrender completely to that emotion when its loop of physiology comes over me. I simply resign to the loop and let it run its course for 90 seconds. Just like children, emotions heal when they are heard and validated. Over time, the intensity and frequency of these circuits usually abate.

The really exciting news about acknowledging my right and left characters is that I always have an alternative way of looking at any situation ~ is my glass half full or half empty? ~ If you approach me with anger and frustration, then I make the choice to either reflect your anger and engage in argument (left brain), or to be empathic and approach you with a compassionate heart (right brain). What most of us don’t realize is that we are unconsciously making choices about how we respond all the time. It is so easy to get caught up in the wiring of our pre-programmed reactivity (limbic system) that we live our lives cruising along on automatic pilot. I have learned that the more attention my higher cells pay to what’s going on inside my limbic system, the more say i have about what I am thinking and feeling. By paying attention to the choices my automatic circuitry is making, I own my own power and make more choices consciously. In the long run, I take responsibility for what I attract into my life… [and] … It is liberating to know that I have the ability to choose a peaceful and loving mind (my right mind), whatever my physical or mental circumstances, by deciding to step to the right and bring my thoughts back to the present moment. (Note: By contrast, the left hemisphere exists in the past and the future but not the present).

For me, it’s really easy to be kind to others when I remember that none of us came into this world with a manual about how to get it right. We are ultimately a product of our biology and environment…. I recognize that mistakes will be made, but that does not mean that I need to either victimize myself or take your actions and mistakes personally. Your stuff is your stuff, and my stuff is my stuff…. Seeing this moment as a perfect moment is always a choice.

I am a devout believer that paying attention to our …[left hemisphere] …self-talk is vitally important for our mental health. In my opinion, making the decision that internal verbal abuse is not acceptable behaviour is the first step to finding deep inner peace…. If I want to retain my inner peace, I must be willing to consistently and persistently tend the garden of my mind moment by moment, and be willing to make the decision a thousand times a day.

I view the garden of my mind as a sacred patch of cosmic real estate that the universe has entrusted me to tend over the years of my lifetime. … [so] … regardless of the garden I have inherited once I take over the responsibility of tending my mind, I choose to nurture those circuits that I want to grow, and consciously prune back those circuits I prefer to live without. Although it is easier for me to nip a weed in the bud when it is just a sprouting bud, with determination and perseverance, even the gnarliest of vines, when deprived of fuel, will eventually lose its strength and fall to the side.

The mental health of our society is established by the mental health of the brains making up our society, and I must admit… [Echoes of Iain McGilchrist here] … that western civilization is a pretty challenging environment for my loving and peaceful right hemisphere to live in. Obviously, I am not alone in feeling this way, as I look at the millions of beautiful people in our society who have chosen to escape our common reality by self-medicating themselves with illicit drugs and alcohol … [so] … I encourage you to pay attention to what is going on in your brain.

Lastly, and in the same way that I ended Part I, here is a quote from Einstein that she used at the end of her book:

I must be willing to give up what I am in order to become what I will be.