Reflections on Jill Bolte Taylor’s Stroke of Insight

I watched Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED talk a year ago, after my uncle J sent around a link to an article in the NYTimes called A Superhighway to Bliss. In her talk, she recounts how she experienced nirvana while having a stroke in her left brain.
A few weeks ago the topic came up again on a mailing list, and I linked the talk to the group. I insist that you watch the first 3 minutes (out of the total 20) right now — I bet you will not hit pause.

I watched Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED talk a year ago, after my uncle J sent around a link to an article in the NYTimes called A Superhighway to Bliss. In her talk, she recounts how she experienced nirvana while having a stroke in her left brain.

A few weeks ago the topic came up again on a mailing list, and I linked the talk to the group. I insist that you watch the first 3 minutes (out of the total 20) right now — I bet you will not hit pause.

T, one of the people on the list, and a psychologist, said that Ms. Taylor was describing psychosis, and that while we learned much from her description of her experience, to aspire to that state was to aspire to psychosis. This set me to thinking, and led me to articulate for the first time some thoughts I’d had on this topic.

I see the message of her talk as grounded in a very difficult philosophical point which relates to T’s reaction that Jill Taylor was describing psychosis. The definitions you find of psychosis all root in abnormal states of mind, in which contact with reality is lost. Well, the purely right brain experience that Ms. Taylor was having was in no was disconnected with reality. Not in the way a physicist would describe reality. Her right brain was unaffected by her stroke, and continued to be just as connected to reality as it ever was.¬†The reality from which she was separated, and from which those with psychoses are separated, is the consensual reality that all of us with left brain dominance dwell in, in which “we” end at the borders of our skin.

Where “we” stop and the outside world begins, however, is not cut and dry. Is the air in your lungs at this moment part of you? What about the urine in your bladder which you have not yet eliminated? The digested food in your stomach? The water in the glass you are about to drink quickly becomes the cerebrospinal fluid in your brain. At what point does it become “you”?

To be sure, a human without left brain function, incapable of conceiving of themselves as individual and separate from the rest of the matter and energy in the universe, is maladapted. We have invested a lot of evolutionary energy into that left hemisphere way of perceiving reality, and it has paid off rather well, in that we can build cities and study dentistry and live longer. But we also know that adaptations which pay off in some ways can be detrimental in others. Many of the way our bodies manage nourishment were evolved when food was scarce, and are actually detrimental now. The adaptation to stand on our legs has freed our hands to use tools, but ruins our backs and our knees.

So would be the case with our development of a left brain mindset. It precedes and enables all of our thinking, but cuts us off from one another and the universe at large, prevents us from experiencing that bliss. Call it expulsion from Eden, if you will.

This is the insight of which she speaks — that the notion that we are all connected, all one, is not just some hippie-dippy way of expressing aspirations for peace and coexistence. It is in fact the unadulterated truth; and merely perceiving it at all, even if we cannot live in that state of mind perpetually, has immediate, powerful, and positive consequences for our way of viewing the world, and our actions in it.

One thought on “Reflections on Jill Bolte Taylor’s Stroke of Insight

  1. Her ending did seem a bit too hippy-dippy to me, I’m afraid. The description of how she experienced the stroke was fascinating, and I can only imagine how hard she had to work for eight years to get back to her former state of intelligence, but I didn’t really see what we — as people with normal right/left-brain functionality — could do with her ‘insight’. And how can we call it the ‘unadulterated truth’ if it was merely the perceptions of a malfunctioning brain? There are plenty of optical illusions that play tricks on our senses, thinking we’ve objectively seen something we haven’t; how is her insight that different?

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