Strokes of Insight?

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, .

# · Jayarava

Hi Will,

Dr Jill seems to be doing the rounds. I blogged the TED video a couple of weeks ago. I was blown away by her meticulous description of the experience of having a stroke – perhaps only a scientist would have had the ability to observe and articulate it in that way.

I was immediately struck by the language she used for her experience – deeply familiar to me as a Buddhist of many years. At first I thought perhaps that she had experienced an Awakening, but then wondered whether that was wishful thinking on my part. Certainly her description is similar to descriptions of mystical experiences in many culturals (I have William James on my reading list).

The obvious lacuna is a method, a way to retrain the brain that doesn’t involve having a major stroke. Fortunately we have the Buddhadharma, eh?

Best Wishes

# · Ellen

I’ve been recommending Jill Bolte Taylor’s book “My Stroke of Insight” to everyone I know. It’s the best book I’ve read all year!
You can get the book for just $16.47 with free shipping from Amazon! Here is the Amazon link:

# · Sufeanna

The New York Times Sunday Newspaper on May 25 had a great two page article on Jill Bolte Taylor and her book, “MY STROKE OF INSIGHT”. Her book is a must read and this NY Times article – called “A Superhighway to bliss” is worth checking out too.

# · Jillene

I read “My Stroke of Insight” in one sitting – I couldn’t put it down. I laughed. I cried. It was a fantastic book (I heard it’s a NYTimes Bestseller and I can see why!), but I also think it will be the start of a new, transformative Movement! No one wants to have a stroke as Jill Bolte Taylor did, but her experience can teach us all how to live better lives. Her speech was one of the most incredibly moving, stimulating, wonderful videos I’ve ever seen. Her Oprah Soul Series interviews were fascinating. They should make a movie of her life so everyone sees it. This is the Real Deal and gives me hope for humanity.

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