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Posts Tagged ‘Jill Bolte Taylor’

I wasn’t really looking for wonderment and surprise when I stumbled onto brain science. Mostly I expected I might occasionally come across an intriguing fact or two that would hustle me up against the short end of the believability spectrum – some wild neuroscientist or other making a deep, left-field declaration that I can’t quite fathom.

And they don’t disappoint. Instead they send me scurrying around the Internet or over to the library looking for “further confirmation” – actually more often looking for dis-confirmation.

The fact that a piece of brain tissue the size of a single sugar grain contains 100,000 neurons making nearly a billion connections was one such you’ve-got-to-be-kidding claim that turns out to be true, pretty much. Depends on what part of the brain the tissue is taken from. My wonderment: how can we even begin to accurately study something so infinitesimal?

Darkness, Darkness, Be My Pillow

Freud UnconsciousAnother similar hard-to-believe claim that seems to be true is University of Virginia’s Timothy Wilson’s assertion that 99% of what our brains apprehend in any moment, we grok below the threshold of conscious awareness. Isn’t that astonishing as well as terrifying? What are the implications for a long and happy life if we’re all spending only 1% of it awake? Might the world be better off if more of us spent even more time deeply asleep? We’d produce a lot less procreation, consumption and hydrogen sulfide (Did I mention that we already spend up to 2 hours a day functionally blind? Every time we turn our head, our eyes stop seeing – our brain simply fills in the space between the stop and start of the head turn!).

Next, John Medina’s Brain Rule No. 4 – that healthy brains have a hard time concentrating on a continuous activity for much more than 10 minutes – was a great relief for me to discover. It made it clear that it wasn’t me or ADHD that sent my body fleeing from the boredom of more high school and college classrooms than I care to remember – it was my healthy brain’s natural response to ignorant teaching methods! Big sigh of relief there.

Re-build Foundations Under Castles in the Air

One more claim I found quite compelling was Allan Schore’s assertion that because of the nature of the brain’s early architecture, the developing right hemisphere by necessity becomes the default repository for neuron assemblies retaining and storing traumatic memories. That fact has a lot of implications for any number of human arenas, especially creativity. It would be great though, if Allan would team up with a popular writer who writes aimed at my adolescent brain. Weighty titles like Affect Dysregulation and Disorders of the Self don’t exactly set my learning neuron networks aquiver.

Louann Brizendine, MD

Louann Brizendine, MD

Probably the most confusion-clearing-up revelation for me came from Louann Brizendine. In her book, The Male Brain, she details how puberty finds my testosterone production increased 20-fold to massively toxic levels! And which areas does testosterone attack in the 15-year-old brain: Broca’s and Wernicke’s, home of speech and language production. So, I wasn’t simply a sullen teen; I was a testosterone-poisoned teen! Like many men, I’m still trying to recover from that early wipeout.

Finally, Jill Bolte Taylor’s observation of what a lying sack of bat guano our left hemispheres turn out to be more often than not, was mostly confirmation of any number of contemplative teachings that repeatedly make that claim: a mind generating painful thoughts is a terrible thing to trust. It was affirming though, to have it confirmed by a Harvard neuroanatomist using stroke-induced self-observation. It was also of great consolation to receive her warning about how devious Lefty is in all the ways it then goes about trying to make me forget that it’s constantly lying through its glial cells.

So that’s a pretty interesting collection, I think. Next week I’ll write about the most mind-boggling brain science claim I’ve come across yet. In fact, I had it here at the end of this collection, but I want to take the week to further confirm the truth of it before I post it. Stay tuned.

End Note: I research and write about social neuroscience because I believe knowing how the brain works can profoundly reduce suffering here on planet earth. It has for me. I’ve recently put together a four-session Webinar that one or two of you may find interesting: Social Neuroscience Training which explores suffering reduction in depth. Click HERE if you’d like to find out more information. We don’t know what we don’t know until we know it.

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One morning several years ago I was on a contemplative forest walk through the fall foliage around the Omega Institute in upstate New York. I was ambling mindfully along, just taking in the brilliant diversity of the morphing oak and maple trees, inhaling the air filled with peat and chill and doing my best to be fully present in the moment.

Suddenly, up ahead the figure of a man appeared from around a bend in the trail. A small jolt of adrenaline coursed through my body as my brain made a quick assessment that this was not some sociopath out for an early morning stroll while taking a break from the pursuit of enlightenment. But even if he was, my size and the walking stick in my hand would have most likely served as adequate protection. Wild Mind doing its best to protect me from a potential apocalyptic future.

As the distance between us closed and I began to make out the features of the man’s face, a sense of familiarity began to arise. We both slowed on approach, each moving to the right side of the path to allow the other to pass. Our eyes met for a brief moment as we intersected. His had a twinkly glint in them. They were the unmistakable eyes of someone I knew but had never previously met. Two or three steps later, his name flashed through my brain: Eckhart Tolle.

Shortly after his book, The Power of Now came out in 1999, I read it and liked it a lot. I found it simplified and reflected much of what Buddha, Christ, Mohammed and a whole host of other wisdom teachers advocated: life is best lived in the present moment. Simple and easy to say, not so easy to consistently enact. Until that inborn ability is conditioned out of us by anxious parents and a condemning culture, children frequently tend to have NOW mastered.

Trauma-Catapulting into the Present

One thing that’s interesting about Tolle’s journey is his description of how, after decades of depression, he came to be able to fully reside in … NOW. Here it is:

“I cannot live with myself any longer” This was the thought that kept repeating itself in my mind. Then suddenly I became aware of what a peculiar thought it was. “Am I one or two? If I cannot live with myself, there must be two of me: the “I” and the “self” that “I” cannot live with. “Maybe,” I thought, “only one of them is real.”

I was so stunned by this strange realization that my mind stopped. I was fully conscious, but there were no more thoughts. Then I felt drawn into what seemed like a vortex of energy. It was a slow movement at first and then accelerated. I was gripped by an intense fear, and my body started to shake. I heard the words, “resist nothing,” as if spoken inside my chest. I could feel myself being sucked into a void. It felt as if the void was inside myself rather than outside. Suddenly there was no more fear, and I let myself fall into that void. I have no recollection of what happened after that.

Contrary to what the promotional copy says about it, I don’t quite find The Power of Now to be a “complete guide, a complete course in meditation and realization.” I don’t think any teaching solely consigned to print really has that capacity. The minute ideas are committed to print (or a blog post on a computer screen), they lose significant aspects of their vitality. They become … ideas. In part, it is for this reason, I think, that many wisdom teachings are best transmitted orally, not to mention repeatedly.

Network Upgrading

From my perspective as a brain educator, there’s one basic requirement to be able to live fully in the present moment: free up increasingly larger network bandwidth; this increasing capacity can then undergird the support scaffolding necessary to provide and sustain the energy required to observe and calm heart, brain, mind and body when distressing thoughts or experiences confront us. Oh, and one more thing: Wisdom teachers who have made this journey and built such foundations frequently claim that mental underpinnings can’t be sustained without the power of the heart infusing them – the heart apparently provides the rebar to keep the foundation all of a piece when placed under great stress loads.

Without the strength that the heart provides – without the refined, super subtle energy of love – the present moment becomes quite elusive in my experience. Neurologist Bob Scaer does a great job explaining why in his article, The Precarious Present. Tolle’s description above of his body-shaking and his mind going blank, would fit Bob’s theory of “freeze discharge” resulting in bringing back online a reservoir of neurons cordoned-off from earlier traumatic experiences. Harvard neuroanatomist, Jill Bolte Taylor further underscores Bob’s perspective in the piece I presented several weeks ago from her book, My Stroke of Insight. We each need an “energy presence,” an Executive Director overseeing the full catastrophe that continually unfolds between our ears. Healing personal embodied trauma and the strengthened network that often results seems to be an important essential step.

In future posts we’ll explore ways and means of recruiting that heart presence. Enlisting the heart to sustain the capacity to fully and fearlessly live in the NOW ranks as Job One for ourselves and our children.

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Much of the suffering in the world is due to one central misguided understanding: in our mindless attempt to avoid death or blindly try to extend life, our own and our children’s, we have established cultures that have erroneously over-developed the neural networks in the left/fear structures of the brain. Along the way we have inadvertently sacrificed brain for heart, intellect for wisdom and joy for the illusion of invulnerability.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor

Many of you are familiar with the TED talk about her near-death experience after a stroke given by Jill Bolte Taylor. I have posted and spoken about her here before. In her book, My Stroke of Insight, Jill goes into extraordinary detail about what life was like with only her right brain operational. Much that we experience as spiritual and precious, global and wise is born of the right brain where memories of our first few years of life are stored, primarily as imagery and sensation. Jill also speaks at great length about the many choices she had to make concerning which left-brain circuits she wished to reactivate in the wake of her profound right-brain realizations. Here’s some of what she discovered as her left brain/mind began rewiring back to life:

One of the most prominent characteristics of our left brain is its ability to weave stories. This story-teller portion of our left mind’s language center is specifically designed to make sense of the world outside of us, based upon minimal amounts of information. It functions by taking whatever details it has to work with, and then weaves them together in the form of a story. Most impressively our left brain is brilliant in its ability to make stuff up, and fill in the blanks when there are gaps in its factual data. In addition, during its process of generating a story line, our left mind is quite the genius in its ability to manufacture alternative scenarios. And if it’s a subject you really feel passionate about, either good or awful, it’s particularly effective at hooking into those circuits of emotion and exhausting all the “what if” possibilities.

As my left brain language centers recovered and became functional again, I spent a lot of time observing how my story-teller would draw conclusions based upon minimal information. For the longest time I found these antics of my story-teller to be rather comical. At least until I realized that my left mind full-heartedly expected the rest of my brain to believe the stories it was making up!. . . .I need to remember however, that there are enormous gaps between what I know and what I think I know (my italics). I learned I need to be very wary of my storyteller’s potential for stirring up trauma and drama.

Death is one of the things I don’t really know much about; it’s one of life’s experiences my storytelling, lying left brain though, tries to convince me it knows everything about. Anytime any of us are upset about ANYTHING – our kids, our partners, our puppies – there’s a high probability that our left brain is busily at work making stuff up. And if we trace it down and around to any kind of ultimate vulnerable wellspring, at bottom, the story will often end up with us or those we love fearful of dying a painful, lonely death from illness, lack or inconsolable grief.

Suffering: The Gorilla Glue of Love

It used to surprise me to discover that people who have suffered greatly in their lives are some of the kindest, most joyful, compassionate people I’ve ever encountered. It no longer does. Traumatic memories are primarily stored in our right brain circuitry. Out of the healing that comes from profound suffering, many of those encapsulated or disorganized circuits become reactivated, apparently helping to bring much greater right brain strength and balance to counter our culture’s left brain dominance. It’s often described as strength of heart, true grit or compassionate heart. And while many of my right brain friends assure me that the heart is definitely involved, what we know for sure, both from science and from anecdotal evidence like Jill’s, is that right brain reclamation appears to be the primary driver of Compassionate Heart.

What’s the takeaway from these brain hemisphere discoveries? Parents would do well to honor and embrace everything they can that will help mitigate the left brain dominance designed into western education and culture. Rather than math and science, going forward the arts might well be the focus that receive overwhelming nurturing and support. Contemporary culture will take care of necessary left brain development all by itself. Instead of ABC’s and 123’s, kids would be well-served to memorize this quotation from French Renaissance writer, Michel de Montaigne:

To begin denying death of its greatest advantage over us, let us adopt a way clean contrary to that common one; let us deprive death of its strangeness, let us frequent it, let us get used to it; let us have nothing more often in mind than death …. We do not know where death awaits us, so let us wait for it everywhere. To practice death is to practice freedom. (S/he) who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.

Such early compassionate exposure to aging and death will demonstrate that just as birth has inherent in it a wise organic intelligence, death does as well. We all would be well-served by learning to be emotionally honest, vulnerable and learn to play nice with the Reaper while we’re in the prime of life. It’s painful to have our own actions and motives ignorantly misunderstood , and so I’m guessing even the misunderstood Reaper could use a hug now and then.

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