Over the weekend, I caught an article at The New York Times.com concerning Jill Bolte Taylor, a Harvard neuroscientist who claims to have experienced nirvana when she had a stroke. She’s written a memoir called My Stroke of Insight, which was just published by Viking, about the experience.
Basically, according to the article, which means, I assume, according to Taylor, after a blood vessel in her brain burst, her left hemisphere began to fail her. Doctors who operated found a golf-ball sized clot in her head and removed it. After surgery and eight years of recovery, apparently, Taylor is basically fully recovered, continues to study neuoroanatomy at Harvard, and wrote her book.
She had been a neuroscientist prior to her stroke, her work concentrating on the different functions the left and the right brain perform. Scientists attribute logic, ego, and perception of time to the left brain (or, at least, Taylor does), with the right brain taking care of creativity and empathy. Taylor believes that cutting her off from her left brain forced her to accept the consciousness of her right brain, which created that heightened sense of empathy, cultivated a sense of blissful nirvana, and, even, allowed her to:
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.
Which is fascinating. I’ve always been fascinated by it, anyway. A friend of mine, Richard Cox, even wrote a novel called The God Particle, which includes a sort of shimmering energy field as a plot point (it’s a good novel, too, although I’ve always liked his first, Rift, better.
I’m a little . . . well, confused isn’t quite the word for the science mentioned in the article, but I think I understood the brain and how it worked differently. For example, I knew the left brain and the right brain generally control different functions, but I thought scientists had proven that people don’t use one or the other but rather both in tandem years ago. It reminds me of what I had thought was an old wives’ tale about how we human beings only use 10% of our brains; while it may be technically accurate at any one time, the 10% we use changes according to the activities we are performing. I’ve always though I suck at math mainly because I write so much; I can feel that doing math requires thinking differently than I’m used to.
Then again, I tend to be a mostly happy person, and I wonder if that’s because I spend more time thinking using the areas of the brain that contribute to this “nirvana” Bolte Taylor is writing about. Who says:
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.”
And she certainly looks happy.
But something else in the article caught my attention, first in the way it was treated and second in what it means for Bolte Taylor; Bolte Taylor’s brother was diagnosed with brain disorder schizophrenia (according to her Amazon.com page; I’ll link at the end of this post). According to the article’s second page:
Originally, Dr. Taylor became a brain scientist — she has a Ph.D. in life sciences with a specialty in neuroanatomy — because she has a mentally ill brother who suffers from delusions that he is in direct contact with Jesus. And for her old research lab at Harvard, she continues to speak on behalf of the mentally ill.
So, apparently, if a blood vessel bursts in your brain, causing a golf ball-sized clot that cuts you off from your left hemisphere, you get to experience nirvana and the unity of the universe, as well as perceive the shimmering energy field that includes all the atoms and molecules in your body, before you sell a book about the experience to Viking, go on speaking tours, and receive fan mail from all the people who believe in what you’re saying, but if you’re in direct contact with Jesus, you have delusional, brain disorder-based schizophrenia and are mentally ill.
There’s a huge disconnect there, I think.
Now provided, I don’t know about Bolte Taylor’s brother one way or the other. I don’t know what direct contact with Jesus means, nor what Jesus is telling him through said direct contact.
But I will note that, from my three years working as an editor of a clinical psychiatric nursing journal, I could swear I’ve read theories that mental illness can be genetic and run in families.
I know I’m backhandedly implying Bolte Taylor has a mental illness here, but really I’m being disengenuous, for a very specific reason: I tend to believe there might be something to her experience and her perceptions, and what bothers me is the disconnect between the way the media (and perhaps the scientific community) and certainly that article treats her experience versus her brother’s. The article is full of careful explanation and detail describing both her symptomatology and the physiological, neurological, and psychological effects thereof, but when it comes to her brother, he is “mentally ill” and “suffers from delusions.” I get that further mention of his illness or its symptoms are probably both beyond the point and scope of the article, or perhaps even that Bolte Taylor didn’t want to talk too much about it, but you’d think it would have been at least a little more sensitive.
(you can find others by clicking on the comic, and find more by Sjoberg here)
What do you think? Of Bolte Taylor’s experience, the science behind it, or the article? I’m really curious to know what other people think of questions regarding science and faith. Is contact with Jesus really less believable than nirvana via a burst brain vessel?