Wednesday, September 14, 2011

More on Jill Bolte Taylor's Stroke of Insight

This is the third in a series of posts on Jill Bolte Taylor, author of “My Stroke of Insight.” In 1996, at age 37, Dr Taylor suffered a stroke that left her essentially a helpless infant in a woman’s body. Her recovery took eight years. As I reported in 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.


Zack said...

I'd agree with the majority of this. I don't want to argue with a neuroscientist over the different facets of the brain and their effect on our thoughts and behaviors, although I'd be interested to see what sort of relation there is between temporal lobe epilepsy, which can cause these sorts of mystical experiences, and her stroke. The only thing I take issue with is the idea that we really can control everything that goes in our brain during every moment of our lives.

For one thing, the ability to constantly be cognizant of one's own mental processes, and, even more than that, to control them, is not something we can just do. It takes far more effort than that. Only recently, with the help of Lamictal and the wisdom that two visits and a lot sitting around doing nothing in a mental hospital (3 and 6 days respectively), have I really been able to direct my thoughts, or rather emotions, in one way or the other. It takes a good deal of effort to manage this feat, as well as just repetition; all neural networks in the brain take time to grow and develop, and given that meta-cognition is a rather high-level process, it takes even more time.

Similarly, the effort in order to create those repetitions, in order to learn how to control the mind in ways we typically don't think we can, is enormous. Telling oneself in the midst of crushing depression that yes, it will get better and no, the world does not consist entirely of misery is very, very hard. I had to try and kill myself twice before I managed to get that down.

Interestingly, the way that I've learned to do this has absolutely nothing to do with finding inner peace or god or anything like that. My psychiatrist recently talked with me about the nature of emotions and I drew something very poignent from our discussion. He told me that "emotions are essentially a crude source of information." However crude they may be, they tend to color our every thought and action while we experience any given set of them. In the case of someone with some sort of mood disorder, be it bipolar in my case, depression, or any of these other various issues, we cannot rely on our emotions as a source of consistently legitimate information. In fact a good deal of the time they're a rather terrible one.

Zack said...

It is my left brain, which despite being an artist who are typically assumed to be tapped into their right brains to a greater extent, that allows me to overcome this immensely difficult plight. I would guess that my left brain is actually in very good shape, probably about equal to my right brain, especially given that a good deal of the art I create is based upon the inspection of current systems or creation of new ones, along with the other content you might associate with art. Maybe it's that rational, logical strength that has allowed me to find my way out of those spots recently. When I realize I'm thinking about something in a particularly negative way and letting those emotions take control, I try to sort of turn off my right brain for a moment and think about things logically. Is this situation as bad as I think? Am I approaching this with an intrinsically negative bias because of the way I feel? I try to reaccess the situation logically, from as neutral of a standpoint as possible, and go from there.

So yes, I do agree that we can control our thoughts to a certain extent, albeit it with a good deal of time and effort. That being said, we need not depend on our right brains to overcome the challenges presented to us. Never in my life have I felt at peace, never have I been ok with simply "being" and not "doing." Motion, progression, action: these are my comfort. Standing still is not in my nature. I have to constantly be thinking, learning, creating, or I will fall into that same pit again. And when the beast emerges out of that pit and starts to pull me down, the only way out for me is to realize that perhaps that beast isn't really a beast. Maybe it's just a harmless animal in a big disguise that I have to see through.