Sunday, March 14, 2010

My Stroke of Insight

Jill Bolte Taylor is a scientist, a brain scientist. She has a PhD and has written a book published by Viking, My Stroke of Insight, a Brain Scientist's Personal Journey. It was published in 2006.

One of the fellows --- actually, the only other fellow --- in our --- I say our because both Shelley and I attend --- reading group chose the book. He had had, like Jill Bolte Taylor, a stroke, and wanted to read the book to compare notes, I guess. Anyway, we read the book and I have it finished now and plan to discuss it with the reading group tomorrow night.

Reading the book and gaining insight from a brain scientist who had had a severe stroke on the left side of her brain was quite interesting, particularly because my focus in the last few weeks has been on time. Not on time as in timely, but as in the nature of time itself. What is it? All about that.

Anyway, Taylor told about her experience having the stroke, what it was like, and what she could do in the midst of it, but also about her recovery and how she thinks her experience might help both those who have similar experiences and those who are caregivers and family of individuals who have strokes.

One of the reasons I was looking at time in the first place was because of its relationship to free will, the ability or discretion to choose. That subject came up as I attend church a few Sundays ago when I suggested that the infallible foreknowledge of the future, which some people propound characterizes, in part, God, is incompatible with, it seems to me and to other individuals with similar beliefs, free will. At least one other individual in the classroom that day was also interested in the apparent incompatibility and tried to keep the conversation going without any success, as usual. At the point where people differ as to the opinion about the subject matter or at the point where someone says they don't know the answer to the question, the notion of going on with that is invariably seen as contentious. And, in the congregation I attend, and probably in the church I attend in general, dismissing something as contentious is about as dismissive a tactic as is possible. Anyway, hence came my interest in time over against the notion of free will.

As I was reading Taylor's book, I was keenly interested in both of these concepts: time and free will. I will say this much. She made apparent, at least to me, that her conception of time and free will during her stroke were intact, if I read her correctly.

Here are some of the interesting citations I notated. The first one doesn't have to much to do with either of the subjects of time or free will.
Most of the different types of cells in our body die and are replaced every few weeks or months. However, neurons, the primary cell of the nervous system, do not multiply (for the most part) after we are born. That means that the majority of the neurons in your brain today are as old as you are.

The next one has a subtle reference to time:
My stroke of insight would be: peace is only a thought away, and all we have to do to access it is silence the voice of our dominating left mind.

"Peace is only a thought away." Another thought I appreciated was:
I desperately needed people to treat me as though I would recover completely.

Not anything on time or free will there but nonetheless a sensitive and caring God.
I noticed significant improvement in my brain's ability to learn and function for eight full years post-stroke, at which point I decided my mind and body totally recovered.

This next one goes it seems to me to free will and the notion of time.
I needed the people around me to believe in the plasticity of my brain and its ability to grow, learn, and recover.

One of the points Taylor made over and over again was the necessity of getting plenty of asleep during her recovery. She indicated that she needed far more sleep than she ever had after working hard on her recovery. She also stated the following:
... my brain needed to be protected, and isolated from obnoxious sensory stimulation, which it perceived as noise.

I was interested in the following:
I firmly believe that if I had been placed in a conventional rehabilitation center where I was forced to stay awake with the TV in my face, alert on Ritalin, and subjected to rehab on someone else's schedule, I would have chosen to zone out more and try less.

She said:
At the essence of my soul, I was the same spirit they loved.

There was this about encouragement and inspiration:
I needed people to celebrate the triumph so I made every day because my successes, no matter how small, inspired me.

She made it clear that it wasn't and effort that could be done on her own:
Part of getting out of my own way meant that I needed to welcome support, love, and help from others.

Along with that was this:
I needed people to come close and not be afraid of me.

Extremely nervous, anxious or angry people were counterproductive to my healing.

This one seems directly involved with the notion of agency or free will:
I may not be in total control of what happens to my life, but I certainly am in charge of how I choose to perceive my experience.

So, for her it was a matter of choice and agency, her freely choosing to perceive a particular way and to act. In contrast she makes this observation:
Before the stroke, I believed I was a product of this brain and that I had minimal say about how I felt or what I thought. Since the hemorrhage, my eyes have been opened to how much choice I actually have about what goes on between my ears.

So her experiences belief. Before she had the stroke, she thought she had very little control, although, it's clear she wasn't thinking she had no control whatsoever. Afterward, however, she says her eyes and opened to how much choice she really had about what goes on in her head, in her brain, in her mind. They she made this observation that I liked.
My stroke of insight 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.

The word character in the preceding quotation is interesting. Character is defined as the mental or moral qualities distinctive to an individual. I'm not sure exactly what she means in this paragraph and how it relates to the notion of agency or free will. The next quotation is the following:
... these scientists identified the neuroanatomy underlying our ability to have religious or spiritual (mystical) experience.

This of course goes through the recent scientific studies that seem to have located a part of the brain associated with spiritual experience. It goes to the question of where in the brain we undergo a shift in consciousness away from individuality to a feeling that we are at one with God or the universe or whatever. Also relative to that:
First, there was a decrease in the activity of the left hemisphere language centers resulting in a silent scene of their (the subjects of the study) brain chatter. Second, there was a decrease in the activity in the orientation association area, located in the posterior parietal gyrus of the left hemisphere. This region of our left brain helps us identify our personal physical boundaries. When this area is inhibited or displays decreased input from our sensory systems, we lose sight of where we began and where we end relative to the space around us.

Here was another one of interest to me.
No matter what information is being processed (or not being processed) in my two hemispheres, I still experienced the collective of myself as a single entity with a single mind. I do believe that the consciousness we exhibit is the collective consciousness of whatever sells are functioning, and the bolt of our hemispheres complement one another as they create a single seamless perception of the world.

This is a really long quotation:
Some of us have nurtured both of our characters and are really good at utilizing the skills and personalities of both sides of our brain, allowing them to support, influence, and temporal one another as we live our lives. Others of us, however, are quite unilateral in our thinking -- either exhibiting extremely rigid thinking patterns that are analytically critical (extreme left brain), or we seldom connect to a common reality and spend most of our time "with their head in the clouds" (extreme right brain). Creating a healthy balance between our two characters enabled us to flexibility to remain cognitively flexible enough to welcome change (right hemisphere), and yet remain concrete enough to stay the path (left hemisphere).

This was a curious one relative to free will and time.
We are ultimately a product of our biology and environment. Consequently, I choose to be compassionate with others when I consider how much painful emotional baggage we are biologically programmed to carry around.

So there is an intermixture of free will and, it appears, determinism. Curious. Next:
We are ultimately a product of our biology and environment. Consequently, I choose to be compassionate with others when I consider how much painful emotional baggage we are biologically programmed to carry around.

Huh? Now that doesn't make any sense whatsoever. First of all, there is determinism, because she says that we're a product of biology and environment. Then she says she chooses compassion. How can you choose compassion if you're a product of biology and environment? That doesn't make any sense to me and it is confusing. Then there was this:
To monitor how things are going in my life, I pay very close attention to how things are flowing, or not flowing in the world around me. Depending on what I am attracting, I take responsibility for how things are going and consciously make adjustments along the way. This does not mean that I am in complete control of everything that happens to me. However, I am in control of how I choose to think and feel about those things. Even negative events can be perceived as valuable life lessons, if I'm willing to step to the right and experience the situation with compassion.

Well there seems to be some confusion. In the previous quotation, she indicates that we're products of our biology and environment. Yet above, she indicates that she had a choice. So there continues to be this tension, this confusion, this lack of clarity, just like the rest of us seem to have. It all goes back to the notion of time and whether everything is laid out and determined or if there is such a thing as free will.
On an energetic level, if I think about you, send good vibrations your way, hold you in the light, or pray for you, then I am consciously sending my energy to you with a healing intention. If I meditate over you or lay my hands upon your wound, then I am purposely directing the energy of my being to help you heal. How the arts of Reiki, Feng Shui, acupuncture, and prayer (to mention only a few) work remain pretty much medical mysteries. This is mostly because our what Raines and science have not yet successfully caught up with what we understand to be true about our right hemisphere functions. However, I believe our right minds are perfectly clear about how they intuitively perceive and interpret energy dynamics.

Here's another one:
Before my stroke, I thought I was a product of my brain and had no idea that I had some say about how I responded to the emotions surging through me. On an intellectual level, I realized that I could monitor a shift my cognitive thoughts, but it never dawned on me that I had some say in how I perceived my emotions. No one told me that Apple took ninety seconds for my biochemistry to capture, and then released me. What an enormous difference this awareness has made and how I live my life.

So the deterministic elements only works for something like ninety seconds and then were free again. But then she makes a statement like the following:
Ultimately, everything we experience is a product of our cells and their circuitry.

There's that word "product" again. We are a product of our cells. Isn't that akin to fatalism or determinism? It seems to me that it is. How about this?
To experience pain may not be a choice, but to suffer is a cognitive decision.

Or how about this one?
As an independent agent, I and I alone, in conjunction with the molecular genius of my DNA and the environmental factors I am exposed to, will decorate this space within my cranium. In the early years, I may have minimal input into what circuits grow inside my brain because I am a product of the dirt and seeds I have inherited. But to add good fortune, the genius of our DNA is not a dictator, and thanks to our neurons' plasticity, the power of thought, and the wonders of modern medicine, very few outcomes are absolute.

Wow! That's one you have to read and think about for a while. So there is this interplay between the determined and between the and determined self somehow, and it all suggests free agency. Free agency amidst determinism. Hmmm. Then there is this:
Your body is the life force power of some 50 trillion molecular geniuses. You and you alone choose moment by moment who and how you want to be in the world.... Own your power and show up for your life.

Hallelujah! I'm all for that. Just one more:
Own your power and show up for your life.

That one needs to be said twice.

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