Brain scientist, Jill Bolte Taylor observed and studied her own stroke at age 37 as it was happening. My Stroke of Insight is her book detailing her powerful account of what happened to her during the stroke and her eight year route to recovery.
Unlike most people going through this experience, Taylor was able to observe what was going on in her brain as the different functions (memory, speech, awareness of the world as she knew it …) shut down. The book explains specifically what was going on in her brain while she was having the stroke which occurred in her left hemisphere.
Interestingly, Taylor felt that she emerged from the stroke a much, more creative and empathetic person. She fully recovered, but also gained some unexpected surprises along the way that changed her life for the better.
In My Stroke of Insight Taylor describes moments of pure bliss which sound like spiritual or deep meditative experiences. However, rather than speak of these experiences or states from the spiritual point of view, Taylor describes what specifically happens in parts of your brain when you have a religious or spiritual experience.
Quotes about ‘bliss’ from My Stroke of Insight
“My stroke of insight is that at the core of my right hemisphere consciousness is a character that is directly connected to my feeling of deep inner peace. It is completely committed to the expression of peace, love, joy, and compassion in the world.”
“I believe the experience of Nirvana exists in the consciousness of our right hemisphere, and that at any moment, we can choose to hook into that part of our brain.”
“My stroke of insight would be: peace is only a thought away, and all we have to do to access it is silence the voice of our dominating left mind.”
“In the absence of my left hemisphere’s negative judgement, I perceived myself as perfect, whole, and beautiful just the way I was.”
“I’m a devout believer that paying attention to our self-talk is vitally important for our mental health. In my opinion, making the decision that internal verbal abuse is not acceptable behaviour, is the first step toward finding deep inner peace.”
Empathy and connectedness
During one part of My Stroke of Insight Taylor had me particularly gripped as she described in great detail whilst lying in her hospital bed, how she perceived the world around her. Rather than experiencing things as separate objects or people, she was able to sense the world as energy.
Although she couldn’t hear properly or even talk at one point, she could pick up on the energy of people around her. For example, she describes encounters with two nurses, one of whom gave her what felt like more energy by being engaging and compassionate and the other who seemed to suck energy from her because she was unable to tune into her.
Quotes from My Stroke of Insight about energy and connectedness
“Although most of us are rarely aware of it, our sensory receptors are designed to detect information at the energy level. Because everything around us — the air we breathe, even the materials we use to build with, are composed of spinning an vibrating atomic particles, you and I are literally swimming in a turbulent sea of electromagnetic fields. We are part of it. We are enveloped within it, and through our sensory apparatus we experience what is.”
“My entire self-concept shifted as I no longer perceived myself as a single, a solid, an entity with boundaries that separated me from the entities around me. I understood that at the most elementary level, I am fluid. Of course I am fluid! Everything around us, about us, among us, within us, and between us is made up of atoms and molecules vibrating in space. Although the ego center of our language center prefers defining our self as individual and solid, most of us are aware that we are made up of cells, gallons of water, and ultimately everything about us exists in a constant and dynamic state of activity.”
Is there a part of our brains designed for spiritual and religious encounters?
Brain research performed Drs. Andrew Newberg and the late Eugene D’Aquili researched religious and spiritual experiences from a scientific perspective.
They wanted to understand which regions of the brain were involved in our capacity to undergo a shift in consciousness — away from being an individual to feeling that we are at one with the universe (God, nirvana, euphoria).
Using a SPECT machine, Newberg and D’Aquili invited Tibetan meditators and Franciscan nuns to either meditate or pray inside the machine. Once they reached their meditative peak or they felt connected to God, they were told to pull on a cotton twine.
Results showed that there were very specific changes that took part in various parts of the brain whilst the participants of the experiment were at the peak of their meditation or connection with God.
Results of the experiment with Tibetan meditators
1. Decrease of activity in the left hemisphere language centers
To begin with, there was a significant decrease of activity in the left hemisphere language centers implying that brain chatter was very minimal.
2. Decrease in activity in the areas of the brain responsible for determining our physical boundaries
Next, they noticed that there was a decrease in the orientation association area, also located in the left hemisphere (the posterior parietal gyrus to be really specific). This part of our left brain helps us to judge spacial awareness and determine our individual physical boundaries.
When there isn’t much activity going on in this part of the brain we become oblivious to where one thing starts and another thing ends. Individual objects and people as separate beings, cease to exist.
Many spiritual and meditative schools of thought advocate that when you experience being ‘at one’ with the World and you realise that you’re not your ego or thoughts, or even a separate being, then you have realised ‘the truth’.
Taylor explained that the stroke changed her in ways that were permanent in that she is now more creative, empathetic and happier because she was able to tap into the right brain. Philosophically speaking, is this feeling of connectedness and being ‘at one’ really the truth or just a part of our brain that allows us to have the experience or come to a specific realisation?
Again, many schools of thought such as Advaita or those advocating the teachings of Ramana Maharshi’s would say if you’re questioning this stuff, then you don’t yet know the truth. However, it is clear that Taylor had some pretty intense spiritual and emotional discoveries during her stroke but she discussed the whole process clearly in her book.
I would describe her as someone who has reached a point what many would call self realisation spontaneously during her stroke. It then makes you wonder if this was accidental, simply because the stroke affected her left brain or whether a so called bliss or spiritual switch is activated when we’re in trouble, ill or upset.
Either way, I think My Stroke of Insight is a fascinating book of one woman’s pure strength that’s definitely worth a read whether you’re interested in meditation or recovering from a stroke or not.
The core message is simply, ‘Never give up. When old methods of doing things fail, search again and find new ways to push yourself forwards.’ In Taylor’s case, many thought she would never fully recover, but she refused to believe this and never gave up the hope or belief that she could recover.
TED Talk: Jill Bolte Taylor: My stroke of insight
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