Friday April 25, 2008
Neuroscience, unfortunately, often proceeds on the back of things that go profoundly wrong with the brain. We know a lot about what the brain does and how it does it from research with patients whose brains have suffered various kinds of damage.
This makes a lot of this research both fascinating and rather melancholy reading. An exception is last week’s New Scientist interview with neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor, who suffered an enormous stroke the size of a golfball in her cerebral cortex in 1996. The stroke left her with virtually no cognitive functioning, but in the years that followed, she systematically rebuilt her brain from the inside out, painstakingly bringing neural functions back ‘online’. This process, however, was not merely one of reconstructing what was there before, but instead (to use what is perhaps a crude metaphor) of taking advantage of the earthquake to do some serious rebuilding of the property.
When the anger circuit wanted to run again, I did not like the way it felt inside my body so I said “no” to its running. Every time it tried to get triggered and run again, I brought my attention back to it – I did not like the way anger felt so I shut it down. Now that circuit rarely runs at all, mostly because I feel it getting triggered and nip it in the bud.
Dr. Taylor herself recognises the connections between this kind of retraining and meditative practices of observing but not engaging with neural circuitry; but along the way, the interview also raises raises all kinds of fascinating questions about the relationship between mind, awareness, the body and the stories we spin about ourselves.
You will need to be a subscriber to New Scientist to read the interview, but you can go to her website here to find out more, or else have a look on the TED website at her interview. Meanwhile, I’ll be getting hold of a copy of her book, My Stroke of Insight.
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