Misunderstanding Jill Bolte Taylor's Right-Brain Nirvana Experience
I attend a regular yoga class with an instructor who likes to share anecdotes which are aimed to help us calm our "monkey minds" as he likes to call them. The other day he shared a story about reading one of my favorite books — Jill Bolte Taylor's My Stroke of Insight. She is a neuroscientist who had a stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain, and documented the entire process (what she described as "nirvana") in detail. She is most famous for giving one of the most popular and moving TED Talks of all time on the same subject. (15+ million views)
We were resting on our stomachs, eyes closed in between poses. The instructor urged us to turn our heads to the right, bringing the left cheek to our mats, and visualize draining our left brain out of our ears.
"Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor explains how the left brain is responsible for keeping you busy, thinking about the future, trying to fit everything into neat logical boxes with to-do lists and judgments," he explained.
"Visualize draining your left brain out of your ear, let it go, shut it down," he encouraged us. "You'll be a better person if you can learn to turn off your left brain."
This sentiment — that the left brain is somehow "bad" — is something I hear a lot, and I think it misrepresents how Dr. Taylor presented her experience. She makes it clear in the book that without the left brain we would be drooling vegetables, unable to speak, read, or comprehend much of anything. Yes, we would be full of love and compassion, but if we didn't have the left brain to help us integrate into the world, what good would that be, really? The left brain is the story-teller, and it has a different agenda, role, and personality than the right brain, but the essence of her story, for me, is that we need both halves equally well-integrated in order to be healthy, compassionate, functioning human beings.
I wish there was more of a focus on integrating and balancing the two halves, rather than bashing one or the other.
Here are some of my favorite passages from her book: (emphasis mine)
—Sensory information streams in through our sensory systems and is immediately processed through our limbic system. By the time a message reaches our cerebral cortex for higher thinking, we have already placed a “feeling” upon how we view that stimulation – is this pain or is this pleasure? Although many of us may think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, BIOLOGICALLY we are feeling creatures that think.
—To the right mind, no time exists other than the present moment, and each moment is vibrant with sensation. Life or death occurs in the present moment. The experience of joy happens in the present moment. Our perception and experience of connection with something that is greater than ourselves occurs in the present moment. To our right mind, the moment of now is timeless and abundant.
—In the absence of all the rules and regulations that have already been defined as the correct way of doing something, our right mind is free to think intuitively outside the box, and it creatively explores the possibilities that each new moment brings. By its design, our right mind is spontaneous, carefree, and imaginative. It allows our artistic juices to flow free without inhibition or judgment. The present moment is a time when everything and everyone are connected together as one. As a result, our right mind perceives each of us as equal members of the human family. Our ability to be empathic, to walk in the shoes of another and feel their feelings, is a product of our right frontal cortex.
—In contrast, our left hemisphere is completely different in the way it processes information. It takes each of these rich and complex moments created by the right hemisphere and strings them together in timely succession. It then sequentially compare the details making up this moment with the details making up the last moment. By organizing details in a linear and methodological configuration, our left brain manifests the concept of time whereby our moment are divided into the past, present and future. Within the structure of this predictable temporal cadence, we can appreciate that this must occur before that can happen. I look at my shoes and socks and it is my left hemisphere that comprehends that I must put my socks on before my shoes.Through the action of critical judgment and analysis, our left brain constantly compares us with everyone else. It keeps us abreast of where we stand on the financial scale, the academic scale, the honesty scale…etc. Our ego mind revels in our individuality, honors our uniqueness, and strives for independence.
—The two halves of my brain don’t just perceive and think in different ways at a neurological level, but demonstrate very different values based upon the types of information they perceive, and thus exhibit very different personalities. 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. It is my goal to help you find a hemispheric home for each of your characters so that we can honor their identities and perhaps have more to say in how we want to be in the world. By recognizing who is who inside our cranium, we can take a more balanced-brain approach to how we lead our lives.
—Although there are certain limbic system (emotional) programs that can be triggered automatically, it takes less than 90 seconds for one of these programs to be triggers, surge through our body, and then be completely flushed out of our blood stream. Within 90 seconds from the initial trigger, the chemical component of my anger has completely dissipated from my blood, and my automatic response is over. If however, I remain angry after those 90 seconds have passed, then it is because I have CHOSEN to let that circuit continue to run. Moment by Moment I make the choice to either hook into my neurocircuitry or move back into the present moment, allowing that reaction t melt away as fleeing physiology.
—When my brain runs loops that feel harshly judgmental, counter-productive or out of control, I wait 90 seconds, for the emotional/physiological response to dissipate and then I speak to my brain as though it is a group of children. I say with sincerity, “I appreciate your ability to think thought and feel emotions, ut I am really not interested in thinking these thoughts or feeling these emotions anymore. Please stop bringing this stuff up.” Essentially I am consciously asking my brain to stop hooking into specific thought patterns. Different people do it differently of course. Some folks just use the phrase, “cancel ! cancel!” or they exclaim tot heir brain, “busy! I’m too busy,” or they say, “ enough, enough, already knock it off “
—I whole heartedly believe that 99.9999 percent of the cells in my brain and body want me to be happy, healthy and successful. A tiny portion of they story-teller however, does not seem to be unconditionally attached to my joy, and is excellent at exploring thought patterns that have the potential to really derail my feelings of inner peace.
—The peanut gallery, the itty bitty shitty committee. These are the cells in our verbal mind that are totally resourceful in their ability to run our loops of doom and gloom.
—In extreme cases of cellular disregard, I use my authentic voice to put my language center’s peanut gallery on a strict time schedule. Giving it from 9-930am and pm to whine. And if it accidentally misses whine time, then it is not allowed to reengage in that behavior until its allotted next appointment…..you have to be persistent and determined about what loops you allow to run in your brain.
—I am 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 behavior, is the first step toward finding deep inner peace.
—I have also found that when I am least expecting it - feeling either physically tired or emotionally vulnerable, those negative circuits have a tendency to raise their hurtful heads. The more aware I remain about what my brain is saying and how those thoughts feel inside my body, the more I won my power in choosing what I want to spend my time thinking about and how I want to feel. If I want to retain my inner peace, I must be willing to tend the garden of my mind moment by moment, and be willing to make the decision a thousand times a day.
—I believe it is vital to our health that we pay very close attention to how much time we spend hooked into the circuitry of anger, or the depths of despair. Getting caught up in these emotionally charged loops for long periods of time can have devastating consequences on our physical and emotional and physiological circuitry. However, with that said, it is equally important that we honor these emotions when they surge through us. When I am moved by my automatic circuitry, I thank my cells for their capacity to experience that emotion, and then I make the choice to return my thoughts to the present moment.
—From my perspective, the focused human mind is the most powerful instrument in the universe, and through the use of language, our left brain is capable of directing or impeding our physical healing and recovery.
—Remembering that we are energy beings designed to perceive and translate energy into neural code may help you become more aware of your own energy dynamics and intuition. Can you sense the mood of a room when you first walk in? ever wonder why you seem to be content one minute and then fraught with fear the next?
And here is a great quote of hers from an article in the NY Times:
"Although her father is an Episcopal minister and she was raised in his church, she cannot be counted among the traditionally faithful.
“Religion is a story that the left brain tells the right brain,” she said."