Jill Bolte Taylor: A Stroke of Insight?

Many Course students have sent me a link to a video of a talk by Jill Bolte Taylor, a brain scientist who had a powerful spiritual experience of peace, joy, and oneness during a stroke. The video has become a sensation; more than two million viewers have seen it, and it continues to get twenty thousand hits a day. She has become a bona fide celebrity, writing a bestselling book called My Stroke of Insight, appearing on Oprah, and recently being named one of TIME Magazine’s one hundred most influential people. Her message: We can all have a spiritual experience just like hers if we simply get out of our left brains and into our right brains. What would A Course in Miracles have to say about this? In my opinion, while the experience itself was remarkable and looks to me like the kind of experience the Course wants to facilitate, her interpretation of it as a call to move to the right brain is both questionable as science and not truly compatible with the Course.

The experience is quite fascinating, and Bolte Taylor’s account of it is engaging and entertaining. She was a 37-year-old neuroscientist at Harvard’s brain research center when, on the morning of December 10, 1996, she had a massive stroke. As the stroke ran its course, she says her mind switched back and forth between concern about what was happening to her and an expansive state that she affectionately called “La La Land.” This was a truly amazing state. She lost her normal sense of physical boundaries. She felt an exhilarating freedom, “like a genie liberated from its bottle.” She felt like she was one with everything; the world was all one great energy field. And she felt a deep sense of peace and joy:

So here I am in this space and any stress related to my, to my job, it was gone. And I felt lighter in my body. And imagine all of the relationships in the external world and the many stressors related to any of those, they were gone. I felt a sense of peacefulness. And imagine what it would feel like to lose 37 years of emotional baggage! I felt euphoria. Euphoria was beautiful….The energy of my spirit seemed to flow like a great whale gliding through a sea of silent euphoria.

Throughout the talk, Bolte Taylor weaves her interpretation of the experience into her description of it. That interpretation is based on the well-known idea that the two hemispheres of the brain have different functions. In this view as she describes it, the left brain is the seat of logic, language, judgment, separation, and linear time, while the right brain is more holistic, the seat of creativity, intuition, spatial perception, interconnectedness, and the experience of the present moment. Bolte Taylor sees these differences in stark terms:

Our right hemisphere is all about this present moment. It’s all about right here right now. Our right hemisphere, it thinks in pictures and it learns kinesthetically through the movement of our bodies. Information in the form of energy streams in simultaneously through all of our sensory systems. And then it explodes into this enormous collage of what this present moment looks like. What this present moment smells like and tastes like, what it feels like and what it sounds like. I am an energy being connected to the energy all around me through the consciousness of my right hemisphere. We are energy beings connected to one another through the consciousness of our right hemispheres as one human family. And right here, right now, all we are brothers and sisters on this planet, here to make the world a better place. And in this moment we are perfect. We are whole. And we are beautiful.

My left hemisphere is a very different place. Our left hemisphere thinks linearly and methodically. Our left hemisphere is all about the past, and it’s all about the future. Our left hemisphere is designed to take that enormous collage of the present moment. And start picking details and more details and more details about those details. It then categorizes and organizes all that information. Associates it with everything in the past we’ve ever learned and projects into the future all of our possibilities. And our left hemisphere thinks in language. It’s that ongoing brain chatter that connects me and my internal world to my external world. It’s that little voice that says to me, “Hey, you gotta remember to pick up bananas on your way home, and eat ’em in the morning.” It’s that calculating intelligence that reminds me when I have to do my laundry. But perhaps most important, it’s that little voice that says to me, “I am. I am.” And as soon as my left hemisphere says to me “I am,” I become separate. I become a single solid individual separate from the energy flow around me and separate from you.

She concludes that since the stroke occurred in her left hemisphere (as she found out later), the left hemisphere must have shut down completely (in her words, it went “totally silent”) and what she was experiencing was “the deep inner peace circuitry of our right hemispheres,” unfettered by all that disruptive chatter and “calculating intelligence” of her left brain.

While recovering in the hospital, she felt that she had a calling to communicate the message that people “could purposely choose to step to the right of their left hemispheres and find this peace.” She had experienced “Nirvana” and lived to tell about it. “And if I have found Nirvana and I’m still alive, then everyone who is alive can find Nirvana.” She now says that she is a new person who “can step into the consciousness of my right hemisphere” whenever she chooses and be “one with all that is.” Her talk concludes with a call to make this choice ourselves:

So who are we? We are the life force power of the universe, with manual dexterity and two cognitive minds. And we have the power to choose, moment by moment, who and how we want to be in the world. Right here right now, I can step into the consciousness of my right hemisphere where we are—I am—the life force power of the universe, and the life force power of the 50 trillion beautiful molecular geniuses that make up my form. At one with all that is. Or I can choose to step into the consciousness of my left hemisphere. where I become a single individual, a solid, separate from the flow, separate from you. I am Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, intellectual, neuroanatomist. These are the “we” inside of me.

Which would you choose? Which do you choose? And when? 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.

My reaction to all this is mixed. On the one hand, Bolte Taylor strikes me as a fascinating, sincere, and loving person, someone I’d enjoy meeting. And her experience is truly astonishing. It sounds akin to what A Course in Miracles calls a holy instant, an experience marked by “the lifting of the barriers of time and space, the sudden experience of peace and joy, and, above all, the lack of awareness of the body, and of the questioning whether or not all this is possible” (T-18.VI.13:6). It has obviously transformed her life for the better. The story of her recovery is inspirational, and I love the fact that she’s devoting her life to helping others have the same experience she did. Her mission is to help bring about “a world filled with beautiful, peaceful, compassionate, loving people,” and who could argue with that?

On the other hand, though, I have to say that as remarkable as her experience is, her interpretation of it leaves much to be desired. The first problem for me is that she gives the false impression (not intentionally misleading I’m sure) that her interpretation is firmly rooted in the scientific study of the brain. She exclaims at one point during the talk, “How many brain scientists have the opportunity to study their own brain from the inside out?” She speaks as if she were actually observing her brain directly, saying things like “Then all of a sudden my left hemisphere comes back online…” The e-mails I’ve gotten from people telling me to watch the video have reinforced this impression with subject headers like “Brain scientist studies her own brain during stroke.”

But the fact is, she wasn’t studying her brain at all during the stroke; she was having a subjective experience of the effects of whatever was happening to her brain. A subjective experience is a perfectly legitimate thing to observe and talk about, but it is not study of the brain. The only way Bolte Taylor or anyone else could have studied her brain during the stroke would have been to hook up brain-imaging equipment while the stroke was in progress. Without that, there’s no way to know what parts of her brain were active during her experience.

Now, it’s true that she did get an image of her brain in the hospital after the stroke, which shows that it occurred in part of the left hemisphere. And one can certainly make good educated guesses about certain things: For instance, given her trouble with speech during the experience, it’s reasonable to say that speech areas of her brain were probably affected. But with so little hard data, it’s impossible to draw firm conclusions about what her brain was doing during the stroke. There’s certainly no way to reasonably conclude that her entire left brain shut down and she was having a total right-brain experience, as she contends.

Her interpretation also doesn’t seem to square with the findings of contemporary brain research. I’m not a brain scientist myself, but I’ve read enough on the topic to know that people who are brain scientists would regard her stark left brain/right brain dichotomy as a gross oversimplification at best. While the idea of “left-brained” and “right-brained” people is a staple of pop psychology, the actual situation is far more complex than that.

True, most scientists do believe there is some division of functions between left and right hemispheres, though they differ on how much. The popular understanding can be correct in broad terms—for instance, language processing is mostly a left-brain function. But there is a lot more going on. Individual brains vary widely. (My own father, who is left handed and therefore right-brain dominant, is an engineer and one of the most stereotypically “left-brained” people I know.) Most brain functions, even those centered on one side of the brain, require significant elements from both sides to work properly. The brain is characterized by “plasticity,” which means (among other things) that different areas are capable of doing different functions if needed—for instance, they can take over functions of an area that has been damaged. The brain simply doesn’t lend itself to facile generalizations.

Brain scientists have also made discoveries that run counter to the popular “left brain/right brain” stereotype. For instance, in the chapter on brain research in Mattieu Ricard’s excellent book Happiness, Ricard reports the following:

Work carried out in the past twenty years…has found that when people report feeling joy, altruism, interest, or enthusiasm, and when they manifest high energy and vivacity of spirit, they present significant cerebral activity in the left prefrontal cortex. On the other hand, those who predominantly experience such “negative” emotional states as depression, pessimism, or anxiety and have a tendency to become withdrawn manifest more activity in the right prefrontal cortex….

…People who are customarily more active on the left side than on the right mostly feel pleasant emotions. Conversely, those whose right prefrontal cortex is more active feel negative emotions more often. (pp. 192-193, emphasis mine)

This certainly complicates matters, doesn’t it? In Bolte Taylor’s interpretation, the cause of her leap into joy and compassion and spiritual bliss was the complete shutdown of her left brain and the blossoming of her right brain. But if at least some actual brain research shows that “joy,” “altruism” “vivacity of spirit,” and “pleasant emotions” are associated with activity in the left brain, is it not possible that her experience was at least in part a left-brain experience? The sharp distinction she draws between left and right, and her heavy privileging of the right, don’t do justice to the complexities revealed by current research.

Besides the questionable science behind her interpretation, the second problem I see as a Course teacher is that this interpretation is, in my opinion, quite incompatible with the Course. Now obviously, she has no obligation to be true to the Course; she clearly is on a different path. But if we are Course students trying to look at this experience through a Course lens, we need to weigh her interpretation against the teachings of the Course itself. When I do so, I find a philosophy that differs from the Course in fundamental ways.

One major difference I see is that Bolte Taylor’s worldview and program for reaching “Nirvana” seem firmly entrenched in the physical. The crucial thing in her view is which side of the brain we use to process information coming to us from the material world. It’s all about using the right hemisphere to learn “kinesthetically through the movement of our bodies,” to take in “information in the form of energy streams” flowing to us “simultaneously through all of our sensory systems,” to experience the “enormous collage of what this present moment looks like. What this present moment smells like and tastes like, what it feels like and what it sounds like.” The “present moment” described in this interpretation is a sensory present that bears little resemblance to the Course’s notion of the present as an entirely nonphysical reality. Indeed, while mystics have long claimed to experience a reality that transcends the physical, I see no reference to anything beyond the physical here. The Course, on the other hand, is all about transcending the physical.

The crucial importance she places on “stepping to the right of our left brains” also runs counter to the Course’s attitude toward the brain. The Course says virtually nothing about the brain (only six references), and those few references depict it as a trivial thing, the powers of which we continually overestimate: “You…believe the body’s brain can think. If you but understood the nature of thought, you could but laugh at this insane idea” (W-pI.92.2:1-2). The Course says nothing whatsoever about the brain’s two hemispheres; if Jesus were to say anything about this topic, I think he would say that the different functions of various parts of the brain are just matters of form, and therefore not relevant to salvation at all. He would never say that awakening depends on something as trivial as switching from one hemisphere to the other. (Short of having a stroke, how does one do that anyway?)

Instead, the Course’s entire focus is on how we use our nonphysical minds. And it has us use them in a way that encompasses functions that are conventionally associated with both hemispheres. Yes, it does advocate so-called “right brain” things like wordless meditation, holy instants, asking within for guidance, direct revelation of God, etc. But it also advocates many so-called “left brain” things like careful study of its teaching (e.g., T-1.VII.4:3), reading slowly and repeatedly and thinking about what you read (e.g., W-pII.In.11:4), reading with discernment so you don’t interpret what you read “hastily or wrongly” (M-29.7:3), looking carefully at the world to see how it really works (e.g., T-13.In.2), noticing logical contradictions and refusing to accept them (e.g., W-pI.196.1-2), contemplating logical syllogisms (e.g., Workbook Lesson 66), asking meaningful questions (e.g., T-4.V.6:7-9), and repeating ideas to enable their meaning to sink in (the primary Workbook practice). The discursive intellect usually associated with the left brain is not something to be shut off once the bananas are bought and the laundry is done; rather, it is a vital component of the Course’s path to spiritual awakening.

Even when the Course has us engage in so-called “right brain” practices like meditations intended o bring about “wordless, deep experience” (W-pII.In.11:2), the experience it wants us to have, as I’ve mentioned, is not of an enormous collage of information pouring in from the senses. That is the illusion, the very thing that our wordless deep experience is meant to help us escape. The Course wants us to experience the transcendent nonphysical reality that exists beyond the collage. And all of the Course’s teachings and activities, the stereotypically “right brain” and “left brain” ones alike, serve a goal that in our usual understanding might very easily be regarded as a “left brain” one: changing our thought system. This change, in the Course’s view, is the gateway to salvation.

How, then, should we look upon Jill Bolte Taylor’s work? That’s for each of us to decide, but I’ll tell you how I regard it. I greatly appreciate the stunning experience she had, her inspirational story of recovery, and her devotion to the goal of bringing love, joy, and peace to others. These are things to celebrate. But her interpretation of that experience is entirely separable from it, and that interpretation conflicts in fundamental ways with my chosen path. When it comes to learning about the nature of ultimate reality and how to experience that reality for myself, I will continue to let the Course be my guide.

Source of material commented on: A Superhighway to Bliss, Video

[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
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