It’s said that a key to happiness is gratitude for what you have. I am extremely grateful for my brain. Not that mine is so special; all human brains are. Jill Bolte Taylor’s 2008 book, My Stroke of Insight, is a good reminder of this.
Jill and her brain
Jill, 37, single, awoke one day with a bad pain in her head. She had trouble with normal morning routines. Something was very wrong. A congenital malformation of blood vessels in her brain had suddenly blown, flooding it with blood, which is toxic to neurons. In short, a stroke.
Jill was a neuroanatomist – a brain scientist. She, if anyone, was capable of understanding what was happening. And she knew well that with a stroke, time is of the essence; the faster treatment begins, the better the outcome. Yet her detailed chronicle of that morning is agonizing to read. It took her quite a long while to connect the dots and decide to get help, because the stroke was wreaking havoc with her mental functioning. And that worsened with every passing minute as the hemorrhaging continued.
Still, it seemed puzzling that she didn’t act right away, while she still had most of her wits. I was reminded of Paul Kalanithi’s book, When Breath Becomes Air. He was a neurosurgeon who got cancer; he too delayed getting help, rationalizing his severe symptoms as just due to the stresses of his intensive medical training. But he should have known better. When he finally got himself checked out, it was too late. He was 37 too, when he died.
By the time Jill at last grasped the situation, she was so incapacitated that taking action was becoming increasingly difficult. She sat immobilized in front of the phone. The part of her brain responsible for numbers had been particularly hard hit. In intermittent moments of relative lucidity, she somehow managed to locate a card with her doctor’s number, and even to dial it. But then could not speak.
The doctor figured out who was calling. “Go to Mount Auburn Hospital,” she said. That was all. I was appalled. Jill couldn’t even talk.
Eventually, she also managed to dial her office. A colleague, alarmed, went to her apartment, and got her to a hospital, probably saving her life.
But here is a fascinating point. One reason for Jill’s delay is that she was loving what she was experiencing.
Very generally, our two brain halves differ; the left is considered to be the rational side, housing our cognitive skills, while the right brain is the artistic, creative, intuitive side. Note that while normally, one cannot really separate the two, experiments cutting the connection between them (e.g., to control epilepsy) reveal that in some ways there really are two separate personalities inhabiting the one skull.
The stroke ravaged Jill’s left hemisphere – so, she says, it “no longer inhibited my right hemisphere, and my perception was free to shift such that my consciousness could embody the tranquility of my right mind. Swathed in an enfolding sense of liberation and transformation, the essence of my consciousness shifted into a state that felt amazingly” like what Buddhists call nirvana. “I was completely entranced by the feelings of tranquility, safety, blessedness, euphoria, and omniscience.” (My emphasis)
Buddhist meditation practice also aims for a kind of annihilation of the self, and this too Jill experienced. She even writes of losing proprioception – the brain’s monitoring of the body. The boundary between one’s body and what’s outside it is something second nature to us, but for Jill that melted away. She describes it as feeling fluid rather than solid (a feeling that didn’t go away for years). I was reminded of the Buddhist asking a hot dog vendor, “Make me one with everything.”
Proprioception is only one element of our sense of self. How the self is created is something we don’t yet truly understand. (For an excellent discussion of that problem, click here.) But as a brain scientist, Jill sheds some light by describing how she lost her self. She talks of the brain constantly engaged in reminding you who you are, what your life is about, how you fit into the world, etc. – an unremitting effort like that of a performer keeping a row of plates spinning atop sticks. Jill’s brain stopped doing it, and her very selfhood dissolved away.
She recovered, but it was a tough eight-year slog. Much of her mind had to be rebuilt, reprogrammed – she was like an infant needing to learn the most basic things about life and the world. The hardest, she says, was reading: “I had no recollection that reading was something I had ever done before, and I thought the concept was ridiculous. Reading was such an abstract idea that I couldn’t believe anyone had ever thought of it, much less put forth the effort to figure out how to do it.”
Her mother moved in to help her. Another challenge was the total loss of her number sense. When her mother asked her, “What’s one plus one?” Jill pondered before responding: “What’s a one?”
Motivating herself was hard. Nirvana still beckoned. Jill had to constantly consciously decide to exit from the “enticing and wonderful” right hemisphere “la-la land” of “divine bliss,” and engage her recovering analytical left mind. And she says she wondered how much of her “newly found right hemisphere consciousness, set of values, and resultant personality” would have to be sacrificed in order to recover her left-brain skills. In fact, she now recognized aspects of her past personality – egotism, argumentativeness, meanness, and various hang-ups – that she’d rather leave behind.
And the way she saw things now, those characteristics reflected her left brain having exercised dominance over the right brain; but that dominance was not beyond her control. She says her stroke revealed that it was actually up to her to decide the relationship between the two sides of her brain in shaping her personality. This may be easier said than done, but Jill seems to feel she has done it, and that it is possible for anyone to do it.
The key to such control, she says, is to recognize when she’s hooked into a negative thought loop. She lets it run for about 90 seconds, then consciously asks her brain to knock it off. This must be done with intensity, Jill says, and she tries to get her brain onto different, better thoughts. (I believe I myself do a lot of what Jill prescribes; but click here for a counter-story.)
All this is an ultimate argument for free will; and Jill does provide some powerful evidence for it.
I will end with this quote from the book: “our minds are highly sophisticated ‘seek and ye shall find’ instruments. We are designed to focus in on whatever we are looking for. If I seek red in the world then I will find it everywhere. Perhaps just a little in the beginning, but the longer I stay focused on looking for red, then before you know it, I will see red everywhere.”
This is highly relevant to our political lives.