Multiple Enthusiasms

Infinite jest. Excellent fancy. Flashes of merriment.

Stroke of insight leads to nirvana (or does it?)

Over the weekend, I caught an article at The New York 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 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.

Really, though, it reminds me of this comic by Lore Sjoberg:

(you can find others by clicking on the comic, and find more by Sjoberg here)

Here’s that link to Bolte Taylor’s book I promised. It certainly looks interesting.

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?


  1. Correct me if I’m wrong, but in general if something is interfering with regular life functions – psychiatrists will diagnose it. If the delusions of grandeur and contact with Jesus are a disturbing element to the patient then they will medicate you, and it you will be classified as having a mental disorder. Now, I think, though, if it’s something that doesn’t affect a persons functioning then it’s okay? I don’t know about that because I know lots of people who belive some crazy shit, and they function just fine.

    Four years ago they diagnosed me with bipolar disorder, I was medicated for one year. I couldn’t eat, sleep, or function normally, they put me on sleeping pills, I had all kinds of therapy and even was instititutionalized for a month.

    As soon as I went off the meds I was fine – what helped me was regular counselling, group therapy, just talking to other people and sharing what I went through. I really think doctors are too quick to diagnose – that they jump the gun, without taking the time to evaluate the whole picture.

    For me it was like, “So you’re having severe mood swings? You’re depressed and have been since you were a teen? Here’s some pills, these should make it better.”

    It sounds to me like this womans experience was uplifting rather than disturbing.

  2. @Lisa: certainly, that’s part of it, but what gets me in general (and about the above story), is a phrase you used: “regular life functions”.

    When I was a sophomore, I took a gender studies course on Victorian literature, and for my paper I discussed insanity as an escape as a theme of the novels and stories of the time. I ultimately concluded that perhaps it could be labeled insanity, but really, those female protagonists were rejecting patriarchal social mores, which, if you think about it, is really kind of the definition of sane.

    But your note: “You’re having severe mood swings? You’re depressed and have been since you were a teen?”

    Who doesn’t that describe? Am I right?

    I don’t mean to subvert your experience, mind you; rather, to corroborate it. Empathy, and such.

    But finally, is uplifting versus disturbing really the only signifier? (I ask this in the spirit of general discussion)

  3. At work, we are involved in a program that helps “special needs” teens and adults gain more skills in the workplace. There is one gentleman, who I work with, and have done so for nearly two years. His caseworker tells me, “He’s slow”… what the hell does slow mean? Even his caseworker doesn’t really know. I don’t get that. What I see is a twenty-eight year old, who needs more involvement, more positive feedback. He has an incredible memory, and is limited in areas like math and english. I really think he could do more given the opportunity, but, still lives at home where his parents are probably saying: “I’ve done my part.”

    As far as uplifting versus disturbing – I can’t really think of any other indicator, right now. Drawing a blank.

  4. Since retirement eight years ago, I have had time to study what I’ve come to call a ‘confluence of knowledge’. The study began in earnest after I used CBT to help cure/dilute depressive tendencies I’ve had for much of my life – although it’s not bipolar – and gradually moved on to take in CBT,neuroanatomy, sub-atomic physics, homoeopathy, Buddhism and a bit of ‘what’s the point of e = mc2?’ in there. (But not too much because it makes my head hurt.)
    I think it just possible that Jill Bolte Taylor’s experience backs up two theories that are gaining ground right now.
    The first is that the left cortex acts as a ‘data filter’ before any thinking is done – purely because the electromagnetic overload would be so overpowering without this, there’s a need to make sense of it. Einstein believed that spinning electrons ‘in two places at once’ proved that distance and separation are an illusion; this hypothesis is also,of course, central to Buddhism -which holds that time is an illusion – and ditto Einstein cf relativism. Thus Ms Bolte Taylor’s ‘delusions’ of blurred edges between atoms of her and the shower she was in would seem congruent with this theory.

    The second is that while both cortexes do indeed work in tandem and talk to each other, a great deal of (a) extreme behaviour and (b) delusional mental illness seems to be neuroanatomically explicable via the geenral principle of ‘things being/going wrong’ in terms of both the hemispherical balance and the communication between the two.
    There are several contemporary (and exciting) examples of this. The left cortex is without question the filing system; when the hypocampus connector between left and right becomes Alzheimic, the right’s access to left ‘filing’ data is lost or interrupted, and apparently random memory failure occurs. This can only be stopped (at present) by ‘filling the holes’ with drugs such as Aricept. On a similar principle, the left brain is far better at distinguishing reality than the right; recent schizophrenia research in the UK has shown convincing evidence that delusional behaviour of that nature is directly related to blockage along the synapses providing the right hemisphere with information about (for example) what is a dream and what is conscious reality. Early studies of psychopathy on this basis have identified not only the gene almost certainly responsible for it, but the likelihood that a congenital defect afflicts the sufferer – viz, there is NO/restricted ACCESS to that emotional area saying killing folks is bad.
    One thing I can tell you for sure: Ms Taylor may be a tad too Messianic for some tastes, but she is NOT delusional. I watched the lecture a couple of times, and the combination of humour,logic and suggesting (rather than insisting)are entirely inconsistent with delusional patients.
    I retain an open mind. For a hundred years, mainstream medicine has insisted that homoeopathic doses could not possibly be therapeutic; now sub-atomic physics suggests that in that realm, most actions are reversed. But I leave you with one intriguing thought: could it be possible that the great prophets were merely left-hemisphere stroke victims?
    For more like this -and laughter –

    John Ward

  5. 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.

  6. @John: thanks for that informative post. I’ll be sure to check out the site. You certainly seem to know what you’re talking about.

    @Lori: thanks for the mini-review. I had already been interested in the book (obviously), and you certainly corroborated that.

  7. “I watched the lecture a couple of times, and the combination of humour,logic and suggesting (rather than insisting)are entirely inconsistent with delusional patients.”

    I agree that she is not delusional, but I think what is being suggested is that her stroke experience was a delusion and she’s not explaining why she does not believe it was a delusion. She has not explained, to my knowledge, the difference between the disconnect of her brother’s thoughts and reality and her stroke experience. Why does she accept one as a disconnect from reality and the other as reality itself?

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