This is the second time I’ve watched Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED talk, “My Stroke of Insight.” Hit me square in the solar plexus — again. Yup. I cried. Again.
There’s still this voice — “But she’s a neuroanatomist, a brain scientist. How can she act like that?” Like what? Like a new age priestess beckoning us all to our better collective selves. Like a spirit dancer exposing her heart. How can she be so damn vulnerable on that stage?
My assumption is that science and emotion don’t mix. Where did I get that assumption? Objectivity-subjectivity. Thought-emotion. Rational-irrational. All those delectable polar oppositions of our western culture. They get is into so much trouble. Duality instead of multiplicity.
And yet isn’t that what Bolte Taylor’s talk tells us? Doesn’t the neuroanatomist demonstrate that duality in the physical structure of the brain? Some folks wanted to study Einstein’s brain. I know I read this somewhere — some sense that the corpus callosum was thinner — so does that mean that the two hemispheres of Einstein’s brain were able to communicate more easily (or less easily)? What’s always fascinated me about Einstein was his interweaving of imagination and play and scientific thinking.
But back to Bolte Taylor. She experienced the division of the hemispheres. And she came back with her message: hang out more in the right hemisphere.
Zen Buddhism offers meditation as a tool to allow that left-hemisphere chatter to fall away so that we hang out in that huge expanded present Bolte talked about. That big nirvana.
I love when she describes becoming conscious that she’s having a stroke: “Wow — this is so cool! How many brain scientists have the opportunity to understand the brain from the inside out?” And her description of how she called for help — mind-blowing. I wonder — was she able to persist in making that call because she knew so much about the brain? If she hadn’t been a neuroanatomist, would she have died from that stroke there in her home?
And what a trip to be in the ambulance, say goodbye to your life, and then decide that it’s worth returning because what a hell of an opportunity… As Bolte Taylor says at the end of her talk: “And I thought that was an idea worth spreading.” The idea — if we hang out with our right hemisphere a bit more, we will become more peaceful and expansive beings, and our societies will become more peaceful and expansive.
What does this all have to do with the last chapter of Soul Made Flesh? First of all, it surprises me that Zimmer chooses to end with Thomas Willis and Anne Conway. I’m not sure why. Even though I was very engaged with chapter nine — maybe especially because Conway is the only female figure who gets any space, but also because Conway is an intriguing person. How so? Because she thought and studied and wrote so much even through the brain-constricting blinding of migraines. That takes amazing strength. But Zimmer’s last paragraph seems to say that understanding the brain takes both science and religion/spirituality — perhaps in the same way that Bolte Taylor talks about the two sides of the brain having distinct and very different personalities. I love her comparison of the left hemisphere as a serial processor and the right hemisphere as a parallel processor. But it’s pretty fascinating that the right side does not communicate in language, while the left side does. How the heck do these two hemispheres communicate and to what end?