Signs of Intelligent Life
Bourne and the Brain

Disconnecting Your Left Brain

DreamingmoiI've been interested in meditation and meditative (not altered) states since I was a kid. Probably growing up in the 60s and 70s influenced that, but I was never into getting stoned or high; I was interested in what my own brain could do in terms of its own normal functioning. Transcendental meditation was just becoming popular about then, and was considered pretty kooky where I grew up, but it piqued my interest anyway, and led to my occasional reading about Buddhist meditation practices, especially Zen. My house was a little on the chaotic side—not physically, but emotionally—and the sense of calmness meditation claimed to offer attracted me as well. As an only child, I spent a lot of time with myself, thinking about why people act the way they do, and what motivates them, so an interest in psychology wasn't surprising either. On my own, I studied dream analysis (I'm a vivid dreamer), read a lot of Oliver Sacks, and dabbled in psychology, including three years of Gestalt therapy. Neurology and neuroanatomy and psycho-neurology are all topics I keep up with pretty regularly as a "lay" reader, and I've got a good basic ground in biology that helps.

Lately, I've been more and more interested in Buddhist meditation, and both what it does to our brains and what it achieves on an individual basis. Because of the Dalai Lama's interest in science, there are more and more studies of "your brain on meditation," which I find a fascinating blend of spirituality and science. So when I ran across this article in the Times today on Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroscientist working at Harvard who had a stroke that "disconnected" her left brain from her right for nearly 8 years, and experienced what Buddhists would call Nirvana as a result, I was fascinated. Turns out she's given a talk at TED that is literally mind blowing. Watch:

That the Times article is in the Fashion & Style section and not the Science or Health section says a lot about scientific fears of and misunderstandings about the non-rational. The brain has long been recognized to have two distinct functions and ways of processing the world (PDF). The shorthand is that scientists are generally left-brained and artists are right-brained, but we're all of us a bit of each,with one side more dominant than the other.

Thanks to the Age of Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution though, our culture has come to value the left brain's linear, strictly rational thinking over the right brain's more holistic, imagistic, intuitive and emotional ways of processing the world. The remarks of one of Dr. Taylor's colleagues from Harvard sums up that attitude nicely (or not so nicely):

“When I saw her on the TED video, at first I thought, Oh my god, is she losing it,” said Dr. Francine M. Benes, director of the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center, where Dr. Taylor once worked. Dr. Benes makes clear that she still thinks Dr. Taylor is an extraordinary and competent woman. “It is just that the mystical side was not apparent when she was at Harvard,” Dr. Benes said.

For "mysticism" read "irrationality," which is the cardinal sin of science. But if Dr. Taylor's experience shows anything, it's that that "mysticism" resides in all of us, whether we acknowledge it or not. We completely discount the right brain at our own peril. Rationality is not everything. It has its own pitfalls, many of which reside in the refusal to see the influence of our own irrationality on our own behavior. And it's quite some insight to come to the realization that we are all inextricably interconnected, and experience it in such a visceral way. I agree with her that we need more of this. Rationality alone will not stop people from killing each other.

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