Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Left Brain, Right Brain

At the session of one of our artists' groups yesterday, Ellie and I showed the Ted video of Jill Bolte Taylor speaking about the stroke that could have taken her life, but instead inspired her with a whole new understanding of the human brain and how it works. (If there's anyone out there who has not yet seen this tape, please take my word for it that it will be one of the most brilliant 18 minutes you have ever spent.) A neuroanatomical scientist trained with exquisite left brain skills, she was gifted with the knowledge and observational abilities to watch, minute by minute, as her brain suffered the stroke that temporarily deprived her of left brain function and shifted her for great moments of insight completely into the right. Her account of the experience tells an enormous amount about the creative mind and--much more than that--about the role of the right brain in facilitating that desire for peace and harmony with the universe outside our small "selves" that may yet save the world from our left-brained need to possess, analyze, dissect, and control.

I'm not opposed to rational thought. I do a great deal of it, I hope, myself. I trust my left brain to function healthily to organize my life and make intelligent decisions. It does seem to me, however, that the whole trope of what we are pleased to call our civilization, particularly in the past two hundred years or so of "progress," has been to empower the left brain at the expense of the right. I believe that we have lost the balance between left and right, and that the results have been disastrous to our species. Jill Bolte Taylor's wonderful, insightful, humorously-told story serves to remind us of what it is that we risk sacrificing unless we choose to honor more seriously the role of the right brain and to respect its ability to reveal the world in a different light, where the little "I" is empowered to see itself in the context of the greater "we."

Are you right- or left-brained? Silly question, really, since none of us could function in the world with only one side of the brain operative. Still, it seems clear that one side of the brain may predominate in each of us individually. My friend Richard, one of our group members, later sent me this fascinating test to help determine which is true for you: if you see the figure spin clockwise, it seems, you're likely to be right-brained. If anti-clockwise, left. And yes, she DOES spin in the opposite direction, too! Obviously, you can't see her spin in both directions at the same time, but blink your eyes and the direction might change, as it has done a couple of times for me. I'm pretty sure that you can't consciously do anything to choose which way she seems to move. I've tried that, and it hasn't worked. It's not a rational choice. I will say, though, that after trying quite a number of times now, I find that she almost always spins clockwise for me. How about for you?

One other thing I'd add: as a meditation practitioner, I have noticed that I can actually watch the mind switch from activity in one lobe to activity in the other. In this circumstance, I believe there is a choice. The "monkey mind" with its distracting thought processes is clearly the activity of the verbal, thinking left brain; as the mind moves more deeply into the meditative state, it can abandon left-brain activity in favor of a sense of total right-brain oneness with the ambient, sensate world, and relax into that state of bliss that Jill Bolte Taylor describes in her video.


Mark said...

Wow. I just watched that video, and I am completely blown away. It was really insightful, hopeful, inspiriational, and just outright cool. Thanks for sharing it! I think I'll go exercise my right brain now.

lindsey said...

I watched that video a few weeks ago and it turned a bad day I was having completely around. I automatically called up my parents and demanded that they watch it and I posted it to my old blog.

I love how she describes the whole experience, especially the way she lights up when she talks about experiencing the right hemisphere!

I saw her spin counter-clockwise the first time I looked at it, which isn't surprising considering I'm taking a brief break from my final paper of the semester. :-)

Thanks for sharing that with everyone, hopefully it touches someone else's life the way it touched mine.

citizen of the world said...

That was an amazing talk. (Although at first I thought she was saying we are "energy beans.") I have been meaning to start setting aside regular time for meditation, soemthign I let lapse with the divorce and move and remodeling nad blah blah blah. This is the push I needed.

Dr.G said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dr.G said...

Peter, Konnichi-Wa!

I was at the TED conference when Taylor gave her talk. My blog report can be found on my blogsite:

click on the March archives from the TED conference.

Glad to find we continue to walk on parallel paths!

May the Breath Be With You!

Dr. G a.k.a. M. A. Greenstein


hele said...

Very, interesting. To my delight, despite all the left brain activity I am currently involved in, my right brain allowed me to see the clockwise twirl.

I'm going to try get hold of the movie and share it with my psychology class.

PeterAtLarge said...

Thanks to all for the responses. It is an extraordinary performance, isn't it? I learned a lot from it, and have now shown it to two groups of artists.

M.A., great to hear from you. Unfortunately, your link leads only to the wordpress sign-up page, not to your blog, so this appears to be the only way I have to reach you. If you check back in to The Buddha Diaries, please check in with me via regular email, so that we can be in touch again.

Hele, welcome to The Buddha Diaries. I'm happy you've found something to share with your class...

PeterAtLarge said...

Hele, sorry for the confusion--for a moment I failed to put the name together with the blog. Of course I have you blogrolled! Best, PaL

Sometimes Saintly Nick said...

Interesting test: I saw her spinning right and after a blink of my left.

Many years ago I read a book (can’t remember who wrote it) entitled “Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain.” The author suggested that we right-handed folk put a pencil in our left hand and draw. I didn’t think I could do it, but after several attempts did, and was amazed at the results. Right-handed I was drawing like an architect creating a blueprint; left-handed I was drawing in a fluid and free style that I had never done before.

Strange how our brains work.

ErnestO said...

All this left brain and right brain and me trying to be a NO Brainer! I prefer to move my alleged thinking to in between brains.

Feel the three sides of a coin, how many people in a coin toss call out for SIDE rather than HEAD or TAILs? I do - it is the only way to have fun with the "heads I win tails you lose" people BAH!

Thanks for letting me play!
ErnestO Foo Ling Master

PeterAtLarge said...

Goood to have you play with us, ErnestO!

And Nick, that book is by one Betty Edwards. I had fund with it myself, years ago, as you did.

PeterAtLarge said...

I mean, of course, fun...

khengsiong said...

I used to think that I was a left-brained person - good in logic but weak in art. However, after taking up photography and blogging, I found that my right brain isn't so bad after all.

Laticia said...

I recommend Amazon as the place to get Jill Bolte Taylor's book MY STROKE OF INSIGHT because they have a wonderful interview with her on Amazon that offers new content I haven't seen anywhere else - that link is:

The book is an absolutely wonderful journey by a brain scientist who suffered a stroke. She recovered fully, back to teaching at Medical School no less (and she gives great tips on how and what to do to recover from a Stroke or help others recover).

Dr Taylor also learned to fully be present in the part of the brain/mind where we experience full inner peace and Nirvana. SHe teaches that too, and that's why everyone should read this book.

This story is as inspiring as The Last Lecture or Tuesdays with Morrie - and it has a Happy Ending!

Anonymous said...

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.