Saturday, October 15, 2011

Euphoria in a single stroke

For many people a stroke means death, permanent paralysis, loss of speech or living inside a body cut off from the world of other humans. But for neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor it was ringside seat for research into euphoria.

It all began one morning when a blood vessel burst in her brain and developed into a clot as big as a golf ball, which pressed on her speech centres. What started out as a life threatening, excruciatingly scary but curiously euphoric moment became an opportunity to relate theory to practice.

At TED, Jill Bolte Taylor demonstrates we each have two clearly separate brains by showing us a real but deceased brain complete with several feet of spinal cord.

The "separateness" of the two brains is visually astonishing. Most of us just accept the seamless one-ness of our brains. But Jill Bolte Taylor explains that each brain has it's own personality and unique way of engaging with the world. Serial left and parallel right, joined together by 300 million nerve fibres across the corpus callosum and connected to our bodies via the central nervous system.

In a sense we are "energy beings" says Jill Bolte Taylor. The left hemisphere of the brain tends to define us as a unique individual - an unconscious automatic "I"-ness. The right hemisphere tends to connect us consciously to the universe in an integrated "we-ness".

The right engages with the world through pictures, sounds, tastes, smells and touch. It's the sense-making lobe that makes meaning from the constant stream of energy that floods into our senses.

The left works with language, symbols and signs. It busily organizes, categorizes and sequences activity. It is a successive processor that performs speech or motor actions for us, so we don't have to think about it.

With her language out of action Jill discovered she could not express or understand any words. The spoken word sounded like her Labrador, "woo woo woo woo" and when she tried to speak, the words came out the same way. She also struggled to recognize the printed word and numbers, so dialing a telephone number to get help became an almost impossible task.

Unhampered by the filters, rules and limitations imposed by the left hemisphere, she became overwhelmed by the energy that flowed into her brain, which hurt at first, but developed into feelings of euphoria and a sense of one-ness with the universe.

Here are some questions and activities to explore the world that Jill Bolte Taylor discovered:

1. Thought experiment one: Imagine you only have a left hemisphere brain. What would like be like if you had just a simultaneous "we" cognitive processor? No pattern detector. No processor to interpret incoming sounds, visual images, touch sensations, tastes etc.
2. Thought experiment two: Imagine you only have a right hemisphere brain. What would like be like if you had just a successive "I" cognitive processor? No categorizer. No sequences of new complex actions.
3. What is it about serial cognitive processing, categorizing etc, that might help us define us as individuals - our "I"?
4. What is it about simultaneous processing, sense making, seeing patterns etc, that helps define us as part of the whole - our "We"?
5. The brain features successive and simultaneous process. What other parts of the human body functions feature interdependent pairs. Make a list and explain how do they work together e.g. lungs, breathing in and breathing out.
6. How could you switch off one side of your brain to focus on the kind of thinking performed by the other hemisphere?
7. If you could spend more time exploring the "we"-ness of the right hemisphere of your brain, what journeys of discovery might you want to pursue?
8. Based on Jill Bolte's unintended "experiment", what is Nirvana?
9. How might Near Death Experiences be explained by Jill Bolte's "experiment"?
10. How might we more powerfully connect our inner and outer worlds?
11. What can we learn from reverse-engineering the integrated whole systems approach of our brains to better manage/control/deal with interdependent pairs of activities in our lives that we often consider unique/separate e.g. cost and quality, centralized and decentralized, incremental and transformational innovation?

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