[Mott] Nearing Nirvana | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

[Mott] Nearing Nirvana

I've always been fascinated with how my brain works. Sometimes, it's downright confounding. Take dieting, for example. I know exactly what I should be eating (and not eating), but I can talk myself out of doing what's good for me in a hot second. I have conversations with myself all the time—of course, inside the confines of my skull—and I imagine that I'm talking to my boss, or my sister, or the yahoo in the car ahead of me who insists on driving 10 miles under the speed limit.

But who or what is doing the talking? And, honestly, should I be listening?

At 37, Jill Bolte Taylor experienced an event that should not have happened. Waking from the "magic land" of dreams by her CD player/alarm at 7:06 a.m. on Dec. 10, 1996, Taylor found herself having a rare type of stroke. An undiagnosed arteriovenous malformation was about to rock her world.

For Taylor, having a stroke at such a young age was unusual enough, but Taylor is a Harvard-trained brain scientist, and her book, "My Stroke of Insight," describes the event as no layperson could possibly do. She had actively engaged in neuroanatomy and neuroscience, studying how the brain works since her undergraduate days in the '70s, spurred by her brother's schizophrenia diagnosis. Taylor's stroke became an intimate journey of discovering the functions of the brain's two hemispheres, an opportunity, she says—despite the fact that it took Taylor eight years to recover—that few in her field will ever have.

"Remember, please remember everything you are experiencing!" Taylor writes as she recalls that morning. "Let this be my stroke of insight into the disintegration of my own cognitive mind."

Taylor's stroke occurred deep in the left hemisphere of her brain, the part that controls speech and the ability to understand speech. It also affected her ability to discern time, space and physical boundaries, including the limits of her own body. As her stroke progressed, Taylor wavered between being completely aware only in her non-linear, in-the-moment right hemisphere, to struggling with her damaged left hemisphere to call for help.

It was while she fully occupied the right side of her brain that Taylor experienced a silence of the "brain chatter" that each of us deals with nearly every waking moment. Quite suddenly, there was no longer any separation between who she was and the rest of the universe. The "chatter" silenced; she was no longer judging, measuring, comparing and contrasting everything in her world, including herself.

"Wow, what a strange and amazing thing I am. What a bizarre living being I am. Life! I am life!" she recalls. "I am trillions of cells sharing a common mind. I am here now, thriving as life. Wow! What an unfathomable concept! I am cellular life, no—I am molecular life with manual dexterity and a cognitive mind!"

The single word Taylor uses to describe the experience of completely inhabiting her right hemisphere is "nirvana," the elusive euphoria sought after by mystics and sages since time began. It's a descriptor I find difficult to argue with, having so often unsuccessfully struggled with silencing my own "chatter" through meditation and yoga. Her "stroke of insight," she writes, "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."

As if that's not enough, Taylor also discovered precisely how her left hemisphere craves being right as she struggled to recover its functions. The left "fills in the blanks" when presented with minimal information, creating the stories of life. It passes judgments, creates scenarios and is far more likely to come up with gloom-and-doom situations than positive outcomes.

"As my left brain enthusiastically manufactured stories that it promoted as the truth," she writes, "it had the tendency to be redundant—manifesting loops of thought patterns that reverberated through my mind, over and over." It is these automatically generated loops, Taylor says, that make us not only vulnerable to what others think about us, but also open to be manipulated through advertising and political fear-mongering.

How we react to the world, Taylor says, is ultimately our choice. It is an experience few of us will have as viscerally as Taylor did, but, as Nicole Marquez' story (see "Glorious, Beautiful Leaps" beginning on page 14) so beautifully illustrates, nothing "requires" us to head down the path of negativity, anger and fear. And what a liberating and amazing insight that is for all of us.

"There has been nothing more empowering than the realization that I don't have to think thoughts that bring me pain," Taylor writes.

"If you want to get better, you're going to get better," Josh Hailey told me.

And aren't they both saying the same thing? When it comes to our right brains, shouldn't we be listening?

See Taylor speaking about her "Stroke of Insight" at ted.com.

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