my first post from two months ago, based on a talk Dr Taylor gave at the NAMI national convention, the brain can recover, but it takes time. For her, this involved plenty of sleep and rest rather than overstimulation.
My most recent post described Dr Taylor’s experiences and realizations in the throes of her stroke and the aftermath. As she recounts in her book, when the intrusive chatter of the left hemisphere to her brain became silent, she drifted into what can best be described as right brain Nirvana. She probably would have died in this rare state of cosmic oneness had she not managed to coax one last bit of functionality out of her barely flickering left brain. With great effort and force of will, she made her vital call for help. Then all she could do was wait.
Naturally, Dr Taylor was grateful to get her left brain back online, together with functions we take for granted, such as being able to put two thoughts together and walk and talk. Nevertheless, she was not prepared to write off her stroke-induced mystical experience. After all, Dr Taylor was a brain scientist. She had clearly stumbled into something highly significant. Could she once again access the part of the brain responsible for this experience? Or at least a little piece of it? This time without undergoing a stroke?
“The left brain would rather be right than be happy,” Dr Taylor told her audience at NAMI. By the same token, a lot of mental illness has to do with deficits in thinking linearly. Can’t live with the left brain, can’t live without it. This is where it gets tricky.
We are literally born with two times the neurons we need, Dr Taylor explained. For the first 10 to 12 years of life, it’s all about me-me-me. Then, around the time we start prioritizing our activities and preparing for adulthood (say by dropping sports and sticking with music) the dendrites start to prune back 50 percent. Teens are literally losing one-half of their minds. Thus, if you stop playing sports during puberty it’s very hard to go back as an adult. “Suddenly, you don’t know half the stuff you need to know.”
Things have changed. Life has become very uncomfortable. The amygdala - fear central - is on the alert. In teen-age boys, testosterone receptors increase on the amygdala. Teen-age boys become explosive, the primal teen. The pruning goes on till about age 25. Literally, teenhood extends into our mid-twenties.
Not uncoincidentally, it is during these years of development that mental illness manifests in full measure.
Ultimately, Dr Taylor said, the amygdala is asking the question moment-by-moment: “Am I safe?” If the answer is no, learning and the ability to remember new things switch off. Ultimately, it is our job to create the energy to feel safe.
Neuroscience, Dr Taylor told her audience, supports recovery. In the hippocampus, the seat of laying down new memories, new brain cells can grow (a process called neurogenesis). Likewise, throughout the brain, neurons can support each other in laying down new circuitry (neuroplasticity).
There are two types of stimulation, she went on to say - attraction and repulsion. But our cognitive systems can override these stimulations. “The bottom line,” she said, “is we can pick and choose where to take our nervous system.” When you change the game, everything changes. Literally, we can pick which circuits we want to run.
The catch is we are less than adept at it. It only takes about 90 seconds to flush a thought and its attendant emotions out of our conscious minds. But we have an unfortunate tendency to rerun our thoughts. “Pay attention to what you’re running,” Dr Taylor urged. “You get to pick and choose what’s going inside your brain.”
If Dr Taylor comes across as something of a Buddhist, it’s because modern brain science is validating ancient wisdom. Prior to her stroke of insight, Dr Taylor made appearances as “the singing scientist,” guitar in hand, urging people to donate their brains (once they’ve finished using them) to support vital scientific research. A decade-and-a-half later, she is doing the same thing.
Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.