March 25, 2008

The "Singing Scientist" and Nirvana Within

I just saw the most amazing 18 minute on-line video

at the New York Times website that I strongly urge everyone to take a look at. NOTE: the following radio interview is longer -- one hour -- but much more complete and more spontaneous, being older and therefore less rehearsed and polished than the video above:

Jill Bolte Taylor, whose brother suffers from schizophrenia, is a neuroscientist who herself suffered from a massive left-sided hemorrhagic stroke (that is, bleeding into the left side of the brain) about eight years ago. During this stroke, she was able, at least at the beginning, to observe herself experiencing the brain event as it was happening: Here I am, a brain scientist and I'm having a stroke! This is so cool! And because of her training, she understood which side of her brain was functioning and how to erxplain her experiences, at least after the fact. One of the things that was so striking, to her and most certainly to viewers, is that with her left brain out of commission, and her right brain, or right hemisphere, almost completely "in charge" she felt a kind of oneness with the universe that her connection with the left hemisphere had always prevented. She explains on the video that the left hemisphere is what gives us the sense of an ego, an I, and hence the sense of separateness, which the right hemisphere by itself has no sense of at all. THe right brain, by contrast, is in tune with the oneness of all things, is expansive and universal.

Her point is that we need to access our right brain sides more, all of us. That whatever the state of ecstasy she experienced when "in" her right brain, whether you call it nirvana or simple peace or something else entirely, it is worth cultivating in everyone, and between all of us. It would foster fellowship and fellow feeling, and a sense of mutuality and interconnectedness with all people and indeed with all things, which is precisely what the world needs now.

I cannot possibly do the video or Dr Taylor's talk justice with this brief squib. It is filled both with humor and with emotion and it is just plain riveting. But take a look at it and then check out the book, MY STROKE OF INSIGHT, if you are interested. Also take a look at her website.

For those of you who are followers of my particular saga and are interested in how I reacted to the above, continue on below.

For some reason, I felt particularly bad after seeing this video...Oh, I was riveted, just as I promised all you readers would be, and as you probably were. And in some sense I was envious of her having had such as "marvellous" experience, though of course, not really envious, because it was within the context of such a truly dire and life threatening event. But what so "depressed" or worse, made me feel more evil than ever, what made me feel that I am...Wait a minute. Did I misunderstand entirely? The issue as she explained it was neurological, not good vs evil. The problem was access to left vs right hemisphere. I had felt evil, because I felt separate and unable to connect -- to anyone or anything. I have NEVER been able to truly connect to anyone, to truly care enough to MISS anyone after they leave...I do not miss Lynn even. I barely remember her! She is simply gone, and if not forgotten, well, absent and therefore somehow, not present, no longer a presence in my life. But I do not miss her...Why should I miss her? She is no more gone than she would be if she were in Australia...and I wouldn't miss her then! I never did miss friends who moved that far away, so why miss Lynn? But that is what I mean...I am or feel evil, because I do not feel connected enough to need people or want them near or even miss their presence. I do not miss hearing from them or seeing them...I, well, my point is this: according to Dr Taylor this could be due to an excess of left brain control and a lack of access to my right brain (if I understand her even rudimentarily). That my lack of feeling connected to other people has nothing to do with good versus evil but only with my relative reliance on my left brain versus my right brain, perhaps even with how much blood flow or brain tissue one side has over the other...Of course, it is more complicated than that, I am sure, but perhaps not, perhaps it does boil down, in its simplest terms to something like that.

But nothing to do with the brain is ever that simple. That has been shown time and time again. We used think, having been told, that the "right brain is creative" and the "left brain is logical" but it turns out this is not strictly so, because what about language and writing, which is...well, which is focussed on the left side, but if it is fictional or "creative writing" what then? Where does it come from? And if the writer is concerned with "good writing" versus business writing, where then? So many factors involved that I venture to say no one can yet decipher where exactly writing precisely issues from, right, left or both sides of the brain...And music too, listening is different from writing it, do they both involve the same side of the brain, or is one more logical than the other? Certainly, writing music, learning to write it, involves a great deal of logical skill. When does it become somehow "musical"? When is a person simply writing music rather than transcribing notes?

Ah, so much about the brain I do not know, and so much there is still to be discovered. Even about schizophrenia...They are now studying glutamate as a neurotransmitter of interest. Now this is fascinating as glutamate, which has been implicated in ALS as well, is not as "safe" a molecule to "play around with" as dopamine. You can't simply raise and lower levels in the brain with impunity or with relatively harmless side effects like sedation or EPS. With glutamate, you can actually have ALS-like side effects! Or worse. I understand that if you add too much or block too much glutamate the effects could be fatal. So the tweaking must be of a different sort than simply pouring some in or blockading the source. So far, though, one very small study on one drug has shown positive results, though it was much too small to extrapolate any conclusions from except that more studies should be done.

As for ALS, well, lithium, which moderates glutamate, is now being used with Rilutek, the only approved drug for ALS and one that only modestly adds to life span (a few months at best). THe two drugs are only under investigation, and nothing has been proved about the combination, but so far results have seemed promising for the two-drug combo being better than Rilutek alone for increasing ALS survival. By how much, though, I do not know. What I would be hoping for is a matter of a year or more, not simply a few more months, which seems to me to be a piddling improvement, and not really worth all the investigation. But who am I to say? With Rilutek's 3 months and Lithium-with-Rilutek adding a few more months, maybe to someone with ALS that would seem worthwhile. Any additional time is better than no time, at the start at least. But if the additional time is only end time, time added to the suffering, then I am sure the drugs are the benefit they are advanced as being. We were told that Rilutek adds to the healthy months, but I wonder how the hell anyone knows...Still, if I had ALS, I sure as hell would not NOT take it!

That said, I will end here, having touched a great many bases, and covered none very completely. I still feel very unattached, very disconnectd and separate from...well, all of my friends, from Lynn, from Cy and everyone else. Certainly I feel detached from Joe, always have, despite my trying not to be, and all my talk to the contrary...I try so hard not to be disconnected, but fundamentally I am, as I say so often in this blog for whatever its worth. I can't think of anyone in the world I would need or miss that I could not replace easily, no, not even Lynnie at this point...I think...That's how empty I am, how little fellow feeling I have, how disconnected I feel. But enough. The last thing you need or want to hear from me is about this much-worried issue yet again...I apologize.

Posted by pamwagg at March 25, 2008 10:42 PM | TrackBack


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.

Posted by: Balee at June 2, 2008 06:46 AM

I recommend Amazon as the place to get Jill Bolte Taylor's book MY STROKE OF INSIGHT because they have a wonderful interview with her on Amazon that offers new content I haven't seen anywhere else - that link is:

The book is an absolutely wonderful journey by a brain scientist who suffered a stroke. She recovered fully, back to teaching at Medical School no less (and she gives great tips on how and what to do to recover from a Stroke or help others recover).

Dr Taylor also learned to fully be present in the part of the brain/mind where we experience full inner peace and Nirvana. SHe teaches that too, and that's why everyone should read this book.

This story is as inspiring as The Last Lecture or Tuesdays with Morrie - and it has a Happy Ending!

Posted by: Adriane at May 24, 2008 12:37 AM

The issue of detachment has only just started to worry me, too, in the last few months and I really am of the opinion that it is primarily due to the schizophrenia and not due to me being some heartless brute. And I believe that it is the same for you Pam.

You say you are detached and yet you still have the ability to cry and get worked up. I seem to have lost access to sorrow and anger. In some ways it serves to lessen stress though I still do feel fear, mainly anticipating accidents while driving, but I just don't care enough to cultivate friendships. I don't know if this is permanent. I still believe that if I set my mind to it I can have friends.

There's a Buddhist meditation practice called tonglen. You breathe in your pain and breath out your healing, then you extend the practice to include someone else's pain and their healing and finally you breathe in the pain of people generally and breathe out their healing. That's an oversimplified description, but the idea is to get in touch with your own pain and not run away from it and then make the connection that the pain that you feel is essentially the same as everyone else's pain and then send out any kind of pleasure you've experienced. You cultivate compassion this way. I've only tried this a few times, but I've found it has helped me to foster an emotional connection between myself and others.

Posted by: Kate K. at April 1, 2008 05:48 PM

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