Right Brain Consciousness

A blog friend of mine recently told me about a video that I think many here at Docudharma might find interesting. The speaker is Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist who teaches at the Indiana University School of Medicine. After years of studying the brain and its chemistry, she had a stoke, and learned some amazing things from the experience. She recently gave a speech titled “Stroke of Insight” at a TED conference where it is summarized like this:

This is a powerful story of recovery and awareness — of how our brains define us and connect us to the world and to one another.

(The speech is about 18 minutes. But its well worth the time)

For those of you who might not be able to watch the whole video, Dr. Taylor had an stroke that shut down most of the functioning of her left brain. Here’s how she describes the functioning of the left and right brain:

Our right hemisphere is all about this present moment. It’s all about right here right now. Our right hemisphere, it thinks in pictures and it learns kinesthetically through the movement of our bodies. Information in the form of energy streams in simultaneously through all of our sensory systems. And then it explodes into this enormous collage of what this present moment looks like. What this present moment smells like and tastes like, what it feels like and what it sounds like. I am an energy being connected to the energy all around me through the consciousness of my right hemisphere. We are energy beings connected to one another through the consciousness of our right hemispheres as one human family.

My left hemisphere is a very different place. Our left hemisphere thinks linearly and methodically. Our left hemisphere is all about the past, and it’s all about the future. Our left hemisphere is designed to take that enormous collage of the present moment. And start picking details and more details and more details about those details. It then categorizes and organizes all that information. Associates it with everything in the past we’ve ever learned and projects into the future all of our possibilities. And our left hemisphere thinks in language. It’s that ongoing brain chatter that connects me and my internal world to my external world…But perhaps most important, it’s that little voice that says to me, “I am. I am.” And as soon as my left hemisphere says to me “I am,” I become separate. I become a single solid individual separate from the energy flow around me and separate from you.

As Dr. Taylor was struggling for survival as a result of this stroke and the complete shut-down of her left brain capacity, she experienced a consciousness of herself disappearing into the whole of the universe. Here’s how she described it:

When I felt my spirit surrender, I said goodbye to my life, and my mind is now suspended between two very opposite planes of reality. Stimulation coming in through my sensory systems felt like pure pain. Light burned my brain like wildfire and sounds were so loud and chaotic that I could not pick a voice out from the background noise and I just wanted to escape. Because I could not identify the position of my body in space, I felt enormous and expansive, like a genie just liberated from her bottle. And my spirit soared free like a great whale gliding through the sea of silent euphoria. Harmonic. I remember thinking there’s no way I would ever be able to squeeze the enormousness of myself back inside this tiny little body.

But I realized “But I’m still alive! I’m still alive and I have found Nirvana. And if I have found Nirvana and I’m still alive, then everyone who is alive can find Nirvana.” I picture a world filled with beautiful, peaceful, compassionate, loving people who knew that they could come to this space at any time. And that they could purposely choose to step to the right of their left hemispheres and find this peace. And then I realized what a tremendous gift this experience could be, what a stroke of insight this could be to how we live our lives. And it motivated me to recover.

Ever since I read the book The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict between Word and Image I have been interested in the balance (or lack thereof) in the functioning or our left and right brains. It is clear to me that in this white Northern European culture that we experience today, the left brain has been prized and holds the throne. But at what cost?

In the book linked above, Shlain hypothesizes that ancient cultures depended more on right brain functioning prior to the advent of written language. I’m not sure I agree with everything he writes, but it does seem plausible to me that an emphasis on the written word would exercise the use of the left brain and lead to its development.

In thinking about all this, I remembered an article written by Barbara Ehrenreich titled How we learned to stop having fun. She demonstrates that beginning in the 1600’s, the European world has been plagued by depression.

Historians of European culture are in substantial agreement,” Lionel Trilling wrote in 1972, “that in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, something like a mutation in human nature took place.” This change has been called the rise of subjectivity or the discovery of the inner self and since it can be assumed that all people, in all historical periods, have some sense of selfhood and capacity for subjective reflection, we are really talking about an intensification, and a fairly drastic one, of the universal human capacity to face the world as an autonomous “I”, separate from, and largely distrustful of, “them”.

So highly is the “inner self” honoured within our own culture that its acquisition seems to be an unquestionable mark of progress – a requirement, as Trilling called it, for “the emergence of modern European and American man”. It was, no doubt, this sense of individuality and personal autonomy, “of an untrammeled freedom to ask questions and explore”, as the historian Yi-Fu Tuan put it, that allowed men such as Martin Luther and Galileo to risk their lives by defying Catholic doctrine. Which is preferable: a courageous, or even merely grasping and competitive, individualism, versus a medieval (or, in the case of non-European cultures, “primitive”) personality so deeply mired in community and ritual that it can barely distinguish a “self”? From the perspective of our own time, the choice, so stated, is obvious. We have known nothing else.

Whatever the cause (perhaps the invention of the printing press in 1439 and the availability of the written word to a more broad audience?), it does seem that our sense of individuality has been granted ascendancy over our sense of connectedness. Perhaps, as the Native People of the Americas have been predicting for years in the coming together of the Eagle (representing the rational and material – or left brain) and the Condor (representing the intuitive and mystical – or right brain), our next evolutionary development will be the balancing of these forces.

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  1. a bit better what happened to me one day in the Enchanted Circle.

  2. my rejection of the left brain at an early age turned me into an artist. Western civilization? seems to have compartmentalized  world view into separate narrow rooms. Even our view of God is separated from the whole. Intelligence is measured by data collection and the truth is only true when it’s been tested by ’empirical’ methods, which to this right brained human seems absurd. Our culture think this is superior, to the intuitive truths we all contain. I blame the Greeks who fractured and catagorized knowledge. LOL.

    Both sides are needed, and I see no problem with the I part existing along side of the interconnecting side. Sometimes you need to lose yourself in order to find yourself. Individual balance in our culture is almost impossible as it has taken the concept of of the material, to the point where the only value is measurement of material gain, and progress of the individual is called ownership.  Even our religions tally our sins for our own personal redemptions or descents.

    Our world view of progress and common good is now down to calling paradise a place where every thing is paved and we all have refridgerators or google, and the left brain is busy building smart bombs to protect our way of life.                    

         

    • Robyn on March 24, 2008 at 10:10 pm

    I finally got a chance to view the presentation.

    This will take some absorption.

    • Edger on March 24, 2008 at 11:12 pm

    It’s interesting that this, NL…

    Our left hemisphere thinks linearly and methodically. Our left hemisphere is all about the past, and it’s all about the future. Our left hemisphere is designed to take that enormous collage of the present moment. And start picking details and more details and more details about those details. It then categorizes and organizes all that information.

    …is software development, or website coding and database programming.

    But what’s funny is that this…

    … [the] present moment. It’s all about right here right now. Our right hemisphere, it thinks in pictures and it learns kinesthetically through the movement of our bodies. Information in the form of energy streams in simultaneously through all of our sensory systems. And then it explodes into this enormous collage of what this present moment looks like. What this present moment smells like and tastes like, what it feels like and what it sounds like.

    Is the purpose and the end result (whether from good or from bad design) of the whole linear left brain process in creating a website that is experienced as a wholeness and often a work of art by it’s users, and never experienced by them in the same linear details and more details and more details about those details that it’s builder experienced it while making it.

    And when it’s done (or at least a stage of it is done), it’s builder gets to step across that corpus callosum bridge to the right side of his brain and experience in it’s wholeness what he was buried in the details of for so long… take a nice long look to see if it sings and dances or not, and then dive back into the sea of detail again.

    Thanks for this one, NL! 😉

    What a great essay. I haven’t yet had a chance to watch the video yet, but I will later this afternoon. Dr. Taylor’s experience as she describes it in your quote above is nearly identical to other experiences produced by meditation, mysticism, some plants, and some substances…

  3. as I do my laundry, as I get riled about the latest he said she said political war, why my kids are morons, I am somehow, don’t even ask, am processing this essay.

    I have been through plants and substances the chill factor, also through doing art, meditation is something I should give myself over to. I work on my concept of passive vs engaged. My left brain is totally engaged at this point, as an artist I feel the pull. How do you apply this to a world where it is so splintered and yet it almost meets. My right brain at this point says don’t buy this, it’s off the chart.

    My Dad a totally left brain engineer of the weapons producing type, loved science fiction and would tell me before he sent me off to mass, about how we might be the molecules in a giants toe. Hard to reconcile.

    How can a person reconcile the scorned aspect of your brain in favor of data and so called logic? Perhaps faith a concept much abused and twisted is at play here. do I have faithin  the systems man has made no! Do I have faith in my ability as a human to sort through data and see what bs it is Yes!    

    • Edger on March 25, 2008 at 12:59 am

    At about 9 minutes into the video Taylor desribes here experience with: …and in that moment my brain chatter, my left hemisphere brain chatter, went totally silent. Just like someone took a remote control and pushed the mute button. Total silence. And at first I was shocked to find myself inside of a silent mind. But then I was immmediately captivated by the magnificence of the energy around me. And because I could no longer identify the boundaries of my body I felt enormous and expansive. I felt at one with all the energy that was and it was beautiful there…

    For a sorcerer, reality, or the world we all know, is only a description that has been pounded into you from the moment you were born.

    The reality of our day-to-day life, then, consists of an endless flow of perceptual interpretations which we have learned to make in common.

    I am teaching you how to see as opposed to merely looking, and stopping the world is the first step to seeing.

    The sorcerer’s description of the world is perceivable. But our insistence on holding on to our standard version of reality renders us almost deaf and blind to it.

    When you begin this teaching, there is another reality, that is to say, there is a sorcery description of the world, which you do not know. As a sorcerer and a teacher, I am teaching you that description. What I am doing with you consists, therefore, in setting up that unknown reality by unfolding its description, adding increasingly more complex parts as you go along.

    In order to arrive at seeing one first has to stop the world. Stopping the world is indeed an appropriate rendition of certain states of awareness in which the reality of everyday life is altered because the flow of interpretation, which ordinarily runs uninterruptedly, has been stopped by a set of circumstances alien to that flow. In this case the set of circumstances alien to our normal flow of interpretations is the sorcery description of the world. The precondition for stopping the world is that one has to be convinced; in other words, one has to learn the new description in a total sense, for the purpose of pitting it against the old one, and in that way break the dogmatic certainty, which we all share, that the validity of our perceptions, or our reality of the world, is not to be

    questioned.

    After stopping the world the next step is seeing. By that I mean what could be categorized as responding to the perceptual solicitations of a world outside the description we have learned to call reality.

    –The Teachings of Don Juan by Carlos Castaneda

    (audio mp3 link)

    • kj on March 25, 2008 at 1:15 am

    a dabbler.  didn’t finish reading “The Alphabet.”  Came from a family where both sides have been fairly well represented, a touch more of the left, but that’s had to do with earning a living as much as anything. we were never wealthy. all ever wanted to do was sit under a tree and read my books. i hated school and didn’t do well. got away with that because i was the last one and then things happened, and there was no adult supervision by the end of high school. college was never an option i cared to explore.

    and yet, by age 30, i discovered my left brain not only worked, it worked well. and i enjoyed it. in those days, working as a typesetter, nothing was ‘wysiwyg.’ i had to “see” the design that i created via code. film was expensive, mistakes cost $$. i was good at my job and i loved the work. my husband, a left-handed physicist, was amazed to realize his ditz of a wife had the mind of a programmer. it was fun, while it lasted.

    but it’s the right brain i strive to keep alive, now.  took a working “Drawing on The Right Side of the Brain” in New Hampshire in the 90’s.  wow.  it opened up an inroad into language (yes, i know, that goes against everything that’s ‘supposed’ to be true) that is the core of my writing.  i draw to write, basically.  one feeds the other.

    when i was “called back to the surface” of the life of a poet/dreamer, i hesitated to take too much information (intel) in. but from 2001 on… it was necessary.  when all those facts and figures didn’t stop the war in Iraq, i gave up on details.  still don’t give them the time of day.  selfish.  i don’t care!

    i love NL’s essays… she invites us to talk. and i do!  😉  

    • pfiore8 on March 25, 2008 at 2:30 am

    Abraham leaving his cushy life on the behest of God as the divergence/mutation point::: from a cyclic born-live-die predetermined/no personal history/ no “I” life to pursue a linear view of time (western) and an idea that God cares about “you” specifically. charity evolved as did personal histories/narratives. this would seem to serve as the basis of the age of reason/enlightenment of the 17th century. further, the beginning of trade and primitive technologies overcoming what, at one time, were secure natural barriers and boundaries. in short, when we started leaving our tribes and going outward

    and i think we are diverging still. my analogy is that of the Clan of the Cave Bear. We are the Ayla character (Cro-Magnon) and George Bush et al are the Clan (the Neanderthals). it is the only way i can explain the decision making and blindness. simply, BushCo does not have the ability to grasp consequences beyond a tribal scale.

    great topic!

    • kj on March 25, 2008 at 3:38 am

    that video was fantastic, NL.  and what she’s saying at the end, the choice, it fits, with what the echoes and ripples and calls and responses have been saying here, at Docudharma.  

    fantastic find.  thank you so much for bringing this here with your essay, NL.

  4. http://www.drawright.com/

    Excellent book, cool website.

  5. There is no simple way to say ‘thank you’ for this essay and for the video. So, NLSTP, I say ‘bless you’.

    In truth I had been avoiding both for 24 hours. This has been the first few bad days I have had since my memory fully returned  nearly 6 months ago. I thought the gratitude I had would never end and a bad day would never come again.

    Over the past month there has been a severe uptick in the chatter in my brain. An old foe has returned with much criticism  of me. During all that time when I was memory impaired a lifetime of self-criticism abated – it was the one positive in a sea of negatives for a long time.

    I have noticed my brain getting sharper. But I admit to being unprepared for the return of my inner critic.

    In an effort to still that voice, I invented a fantasy. In my mind, I became enclosed in a bubble – a very light filled bouncing bubble. And in that state I can skip over land, oceans of water, taking in more and more light. Nothing that I do not want to touch me can touch me. I grow happier and more joy filled, my bubble sometimes only barely touching the earth’s surface.

    This imagery shuts down the critic and I become very happy and feel at one with all matter in the universe.

    I have called upon my bubble a lot in the past few days and my bubble has not once failed me. And so I began to wonder why I could not create this bubble all of those years before nearly dying in that car accident.

    I learned the answer today. My right consciousness was annointed that day as breathingstill’s true angel. I am so very lucky.

    • RiaD on April 5, 2008 at 2:44 am

    i’ve only read your essay….it’s a very lot to take in, & i feel i should read it a time or two more….

    but i’m amazed at some of these descriptions….

    i’ve clicked the little ‘+’ so i can find this again

    it’s facinating

    i’ll return with deeper impressions soon

    & will read the comments then too

    thankyou ever so much for showing me this

    ♥~

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