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A Stroke Leads A Brain Scientist To A New Spirituality (nytimes.com)
17 points by wyw on Aug 15, 2009 | hide | past | favorite | 29 comments

I can't help but feel rather put off by the reporting in the article, if not by the entire subject matter.

Mostly because it seems to imply that those of us with two fully-functional hemispheres are somehow deeply unhappy people, incapable of peaceful quiet.

Also, she appears to have made some reasonably large leaps in terms of what damage to one hemisphere has done to her personality and behaviour. A lot of those traits are whole-brain processes. It seems rather reductionist to suggest that the left hemisphere is some sort of ball-and-chain holding us all away from enlightenment and bliss.

And really, if the goal is to convince us to relinquish the control that our left hemispheres have over us, then why frame in neo-spiritualist terms that are so utterly unappealing to most left-hemisphere-dominant people?

The mere suggestion of left-hemisphere dominance causing all of societies problems is rather ridiculous.

The lack of left-hemisphere dominance is known to greatly increase your chances for depression and for emotional and mental problems, all of which plague the right-hemisphere dominant left-handers.

I'm left-handed, so's my wife, and so are several of my extended family and several of my friends. I know left-handers who are deeply spiritual, and personally I'm deeply sceptical. We have all the same problems as everyone else, and then high prevalences of bipolar, schizophrenia and everything else to boot.

What she appears to be reasoning is that the loss of the analytical, logical, numerical verbal and certain language centres of your brain will remove all of life's problems. I'm sure it will when you're rolling in the money and your memoirs are being features in the NY times, but for everyone else I'm sure being unable to think analytically, logically or losing your grammar and vocabulary centres of your brain will only cause more problems, like the complete inability to be employed and probably the complete inability to concentrate on filling out welfare forms.

Seriously, if you're right-handed (left-hemisphere) dominant, feel lucky. Just remember that being righties, you might want to take a break more often than you think you do. Have a margaritas or two, I'm sure it'll get you to euphoria faster and safer than having a stroke!

Consider that if you were trained from youth in mystical or magical ways of thinking, you'd likely be pretty unreceptive to reductionist arguments and glorification of the scientific method - at least, that's been my experience with hippies, astrologers and such folk. For a variety of reasons, a lot of these people seem deficient to me in terms of left-hemisphere functioning, although I am only an amateur psychologist and this is based purely on anecdotal observations. On the other hand, such people are quite functional is most regards, even though you and I would regard their thinking patterns as somewhat maladaptive.

I find Dr Taylor's views and attitude easy to appreciate, since I've had similar experiences and turning points, though not through such dramatic circumstances. I believe she makes excellent points, worth hearing - but I don't feel like any less of a materialist or believer in the utility of logic and scientific method.

Your opinions seem quite prejudiced and insulting. Hippies and Astrologers, just like any Scientist is left-hemisphere dominant if they're right handed, it doesn't change and you cannot do anything that affects it (aside from maybe a stroke).

Astrologers believe in something you don't, and it's very ignorant to say they're deficient in basic mental processes. I'm sure many hippies are, but that's called drug abuse. Scientists can be equally as misled as any astrologer to facts, just read up on the amazing work done by many of our cold-fusion scientists who ignore fundamental scientific concepts like the conservation of mass and energy. Personally, I think astrologers are a lot smarter than any cold-fusion/free energy scientist out there, and those scientists somehow got their hands onto Ph.D's.

I'm right-hemisphere dominant, I'm extremely logical, sceptical and I have a high IQ. I scored amazingly in math and science, I'm completely non-religious to the point that I find atheists disturbingly religious in their activities, and I've also worked as a writer. Your brain works the way it works, the way your genes and life have designed it to work. I'm somehow right-hemisphere dominant and out-perform nearly every left-hemisphere dominant people I know at tasks they're supposed to be good at. That's the irony of life.

I find Dr Taylor's views to be psycho crackpot work and I give them less credence than my horoscope. She's claiming a lack of left-hemisphere dominance is good, which I'm sorry but personally I really like writing (as anyone can tell from my comments, including this one) and losing the left-hemisphere kind of ruins that whole fun, also talking.

She apparently had a stroke, probably lost very minor functioning in her brain and had a religious experience, just like thousands of other people do every year when they have a heart attack, stroke, cancer, hit by a car, girlfriend kicked them in the crotch . . . okay I added the last one, but religious experiences don't necessarily come in the same form. She likely wasn't very religious, so when she had hers she didn't attribute it to god.

The whole process of near-death usually helps people not worry about the mundane problems, like your boss being a jerk. At least for a few months.

I never had a stroke or been to a doctor for the last 28 years! However, I had a molar removed under anaesthesia and I never experienced the bliss that I felt when I woke up. I guess something in the drugs must have triggered it. When you disconnect the brain from the 'sensors' or when is 'shutting down' all these mysterious effects are experienced. I had an uncle that had a Near Death Experience, he had no reason to lie to anyone about it. He described everything that happened in the morgue (they took him there). I took the trouble to go and speak to some of the medics and they confirmed what happened.

Ever since Carl Sagan proposed that people with NDE are perhaps re-experiencing their birth, I am more awed with neuro-science. The highly logical hacker in me is always looking for a physical explanation where either my left or right brain remains open and agnostic!

The beauty of the article is that it comes from a person in the field, but so was Teller and he was duped by Uri Geller.

I had some medical problems when I was growing up that caused me to black out often enough that I became pretty familiar with the sensations of the process. What you are describing sounds similar to what I would call a sense of euphoria I would experience when I first came back to consciousness.

I never got any sort of satisfactory explanation for what exactly was going on, but it almost seems to be some sort of neurochemical boot up process related to consciousness.

The other mystery with all this is that none of these people remember talking to anyone, it seems that the language faculty keeps suppressing some processes in the brain, it is almost as if it is an abstract layer on top of the underlying 'compilers'. Aboriginal people always talk about the 'dream world' which I theorize was a pre-language sort of memory.

Try this experiment. Try to think of driving to the store buy some food, come back home cook it and have dinner. Can you do that without language just images?

I recall that waking up happened in stages.

The first stage was full on dreamworld. The majority of it was nonsense I forgot immediately, but I do have scattered memories of very intricate and bizarre almost Proustian sorts of scenes playing out in my mind involving whoever was around at the time. Like sleeping dreams the amount of elapsed time in the dream did not seem to be bounded by external time.

The second phase begins as you wake up from that dream and consists of auditory & visual 'hallucinations.' I scare-quote that because it's probably not the most precise characterization. The best way I can describe the sound is as the sound of crashing waves at the ocean, but they quickly go from very loud to to sort of a dull ringing that almost seems to physically hurt your ears. (I associate this with high blood pressure for some reason, but I don't think that's valid, particularly in this case.) The visuals consist of an almost cinematic gradual fade-in from black.

The third and final stage is where things become more familiar. This generally kicks in a minute or so after you regain consciousness. This is where you are aware of your surroundings but very muddled. If you're in a medical situation, people will be talking to you but it will just seem like gibberish. This fades pretty quickly back into a sort-of normalcy that you gradually adapt to. Sometimes this would be accompanied by nausea, and at this point you are still susceptible to re-starting the process if you aren't careful.

I am not sure I could really do it in practice, but as a thought experiment, I don't have a huge problem with visualizing that sequence without language, but then again, I am a symbolic/visual person in terms of my learning and thought process.

You can do that? I have tried very hard and can do part of it but always some word creeps in, even if is saying thank you to the teller.

Well, in general I make it a point to be as polite as possible in situations like that because it is not in my nature to be very outgoing and talkative. I tend to be shy with people I don't know well. From the perspective of purely my own personality, getting by with a smile and a nod doesn't present much of a problem to me and is really the default state.

It's interesting, now that I have run it through a couple more times. If I think about somewhere I can walk to/from, it's much easier than having to imagine driving, for example, and if I am less familiar with an area, I tend to think more in terms of streets and directions than with areas I know well where I am navigating based on landmarks.

A speculative work which may shed some light on this phenomenon is Julian Jaynes' The origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind - http://www.amazon.com/Origin-Consciousness-Breakdown-Bicamer... and well-summarized at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bicameralism_(psychology) - although the abstract does not even come close to the experience of reading Jaynes' book.

I am disappointed at the dismissive comments; perhaps those skimming he article failed to note Taylor's comment that 'religion is a story the left brain tells the right brain', and that she is capable enough to teach neuroanatomy at Indiana University's medical school - if she is not up to or interested in performing as much academic research, she has hardly become an anti-scientist.

It's quite possible to be a good materialist and still enjoy a spiritual dimension to life without evoking immaterial agencies or phenomena to do so; the different cerebration that seems to take place in the subordinate (usually right) hemisphere doesn't indicate less 'processing power' or 'buggy software'; it just processes incoming information differently, and the idea that there is nothing worthwhile to be learned this way is arguably foolish.

Indeed, there's a faulty syllogism at work here: Scatterbrained mystics make unscientific claims about the right brain. Taylor makes positive reports of improved mental state, following a temporary, documented inhibition of her left hemisphere. Therefore, Taylor is a scatterbrained mystic whose claims are unscientific.

I don't see Taylor making any claims about immaterial causes or phenomena, either in this article or on her website, any more than the literature of Zen does, or any of the serious research into psychotropic drugs.

Thanks for that link. I saw her book when I was browsing the bookstore, it looked interesting but I never picked it up.

Her book is short and clear, and a quick read. I wish it went a bit deeper into the science, but it did a decent job, for being targeted at a lay audience.

I don't want to knock on the lady, I'm really glad that she has survived. But when you decouple your 'input' and you become disconnected you are very close to dreaming.

That does not mean that there is any relevance to your 'untethered' experience. Similar things happen to people that are subjected to sensory deprivation, such as being immersed in tanks with salt water for extended periods.

It usually does not take very long before hallucinations begin.


"""All the mystics advise dissociation (wherein painful reality is transformed into a bad dream) as being the most effective means to deal with all the wars and murders and rapes and tortures and domestic violence and child abuse and sadness and loneliness and grief and depression and suicides and the such-like. Just as a traumatised victim of an horrific and terrifying event makes the experience unreal in order to cope with the ordeal, all the Gurus and the God-Men, the Masters and the Messiahs, the Avatars and the Saviours and the Saints and the Sages have desperately done precisely this thing (during what is sometimes called ‘the dark night of the soul’). Mystics have been transmogrifying the real world ‘reality’ into an unreal ‘True Reality’ via the epiphenomenal imaginative/intuitive facility born of the psyche (which is formed by the instinctual passions genetically endowed by blind nature for survival purposes) for millennia."""

I can already imagine the kind of comments that this article (and even more her TED talk) will trigger here.

Which will, ironically, prove her point.

EDIT: What I mean is that we are (myself included) mostly left brain people. Otherwise we probably wouldn't be here.

It's hard for us to relate to this kind of experiences. It's easier to dismiss them and go back to our own so very important projects and our endless elucubrations.

Will we now accept that 'spirituality' is a construct of matter?

Most probably we should. It is the most obvious answer. However we have not as yet managed to understand what matter is and how weird the sub-atomic world is. At a point causality seems to disappear and the world as we know it needs a transformation in order to explain this sub-atomic world.

If you posit some nonmaterial spiritual influence, then you have the awkward problem of the magic-stuff <-> physical brain interface (and no, it's not in the pineal gland).

Science doesn't dictate anything to spirituality. Nobody ever decided to pray after reading studies about prayer reducing illnesses.

You mean how it doesn't reduce illness in a real way?

yeah, ambiguous phrasing..

>Her message, that people can choose to live a more peaceful, spiritual life by sidestepping their left brain, has resonated widely.

We already have a method of sidestepping the left hemisphere: religion. But in all seriousness, I think she's right. You can achieve this so called nirvana without resorting to religion, which is an invention by us to satisfy our spiritual needs. Also I think the stroke damaged her left side enough to open her mind to this point. So I do not think she is delusional, just more open minded. Too much logic and reasoning results in more narrow minded thinking, but too little results in more unrealistic thinking. She happened to hit the perfect balance after the stroke.

We lost a scientist, and gained a delusional spiritualist.

What a trade...

stroke == brain defect

Stroke is not a brain defect.

Ischemic stroke is caused by a blood clot that could come from as far south as your legs. Hemorrhagic stroke is caused by a burst blood vessel that blocks blood getting to your brain. In both cases, stroke is the lack of oxygen to your brain.

It is largely caused by cardiovascular disease.

uh, yeah, but the result is dead brain tissue :)

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