Sunday, March 31, 2013

Stroke of Insight

"Our desire for peace must be stronger than our attachment to misery, our ego, and our need to be right." 


"Own your power and show up for your life." 

                                     –  Jill Bolte Taylor, My Stroke of Insight

Today is Sunday, March 31, 2013.

Jill Bolte Taylor is a neuroanatomist who had a stroke at the age of 37, back in December of 1996.  As a leading brain researcher, she had the ability to realize that she was having a stroke, and was able to get help quickly.  She was also able to realize or reconstruct much of what was going on in her brain when the stroke occurred, as well as during her eight-year recovery process.  A gifted teacher, she is able to explain to those of us who are unfamiliar with the workings of the brain just exactly what happens to those who suffer a stroke, how it feels to have a stroke, and how best to treat and care for stroke patients.

Although I saw Dr. Taylor's powerful TED talk on the Internet several years ago, I never got around to reading her book until recently.  I was amazed at how profound and insightful the book is, and am excited to share with you some of the wisdom that I gained from it.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor
 There are basically three different ways a stroke can be caused.  83% of all strokes are caused by blood clots that block the flow of oxygen-rich blood that keeps the brain cells alive.  17% of all strokes are "hemorrhagic" strokes, where blood escapes from the arteries and floods the brain.  What very few people know is that the blood is actually toxic to neurons (brain cells) when it comes into direct contact with them!  An aneurysm is a form of hemorrhagic stroke where the wall of a blood vessel weakens and balloons outward, eventually rupturing and flooding the brain tissue with toxic blood.

A hemorrhagic stroke can also be caused by a very rare condition called arteriovenous malformation (AVM), in which the arteries that supply blood to the brain are malformed from birth.  Instead of there being small capillaries connecting arteries and veins, with AVM, the arteries and veins are directly connected.  The capillaries are there to serve as a buffer between the high-pressure arteries and the low-pressure veins.  When the vein can no longer handle pressure from the artery, the vein ruptures, flooding the brain with toxic blood.  AVM accounts for only about 2% of all hemorrhagic strokes, but it is a common cause of strokes in younger people, aged 25-45.  This was the cause of Dr. Taylor's stroke.

It's important to realize that no two strokes are identical, and that each person recovers from a stroke in their own way, so although there are many commonalities between what happened to Dr. Taylor and what happens to other people, every case is slightly different.

Many of  us are aware of the difference between the right and left hemispheres of the brain. In her TED talk, she actually shows the audience a real brain, and it becomes clear that the left and right halves of the brain are almost completely separate, connected only at one end by the corpus callosum. These two parts of the brain behave differently when surgically separated than when they are connected.   When they are separate, they can function as two independent brains with separate personalities, the so-called Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde phenomenon.   When they are working together, they function in seamless fashion to help us make sense of and interact with our environment. 

Interestingly enough, the side of the brain that is dominant in a person does not correspond to which hand you use.  More than 85% of the U.S. population is right-handed, and virtually all of these people are left-brain dominant.  For left-handed people, the statistics are different:  more than 60% of lefties are also left-brain dominant, which means that a little less than 40% of these people (15% of the population) are right-brain dominant.

The right hemisphere works like a parallel processor of a computer; it processes simultaneous streams of information from our sensory systems and the emotions which are triggered by the events in our lives.  It perceives the big picture.  It thinks in visual images, for the most part.  (Blind people are capable of picturing things, too, believe it or not, perhaps not in color, but in shape and orientation in space, for example.)  The right mind functions in a state of timelessness, where no time exists except the present moment.  The right mind is the home of creativity and intuition.  The right mind experiences the self as an energy being that is interconnected with all life, including all plant and animal life, the earth itself, all human beings, and that which we call God. 

The left hemisphere of the brain works more like a serial processor.  It is the home of linear thought; it's the part of the brain that divides our lives into past, present and future.  The left mind uses language, and it is responsible for the little chatterbox in our heads that gives a running commentary on our lives.  The left mind analyzes details, and categorizes them using language. It thinks in terms of hierarchies of information.  It is the home of our  academic thinking.  The speed at which the left brain works has been shown to vary among people. The left mind distinguishes patterns, which allows us to process a lot of information without much conscious attention to the thinking process itself.  The left brain experiences self as "I," apart from others.  It is the home of the ego. 

Although the two sides of the brain have completely different ways of working, they are complementary and work together seamlessly.  For example, it's our left brain that understands language when someone speaks to us, but the right brain interprets the nonverbal cues, or body language, of the speaker.   Damage to either side of the brain results in different types of problems.

Dr. Taylor's stroke affected her left brain, so she was in the unique position of being able to experience at first hand how the right brain functions by itself, without the use of language or linear thought.  With her left brain "offline," so to speak, she was able to experience a deep inner peace, a state of nirvana, that the rest of us can only experience in deep meditation, when we consciously decide to ignore our left-brain processing.  When she began to recover her left-brain functions, she was aware that there were some things she didn't actually want to recover, so she ended up re-inventing herself, as it were.  

"I have been very fussy this time around," writes Dr. Taylor, "about which emotional programs I am interested in retaining and which ones I have no interest in giving voice to again (impatience,  criticism, unkindness)." 

Dr. Taylor explains in her book that the limbic system runs emotional programs in the brain. In my blog entry yesterday, I explained that emotions are the result of neuropeptides, chemicals created by the brain, and that cells in the body have specific receptor sites for these neuropeptides.  Interestingly enough, when I wrote that blog entry yesterday, I had not yet read the one piece of information in Dr. Taylor's book that absolutely blew me away.  It takes only 90 seconds (a minute and a half) from the time something triggers the creation of a specific neuropeptide to the time the chemical circulates completely through the bloodstream, then gets flushed out.  This means that the "automatic" part of our emotions only lasts about 90 seconds.  If we choose to stay angry (continue to run the program) past the original trigger point, that is a choice, whether it is conscious or subconscious! 

Dr. Taylor says that we have more conscious control over our brains than most of us realize.  It is actually possible to tell your brain to stop running an emotional program.  Some people may simply say to themselves, "Stop!" or "Cancel! Cancel!" or "Enough, already!"  Dr. Taylor says it's important to be firm and consistent, or the negative thoughts and emotions will come back.  (See the quote at the top of this blog entry.)

The other day, some friends of mine were talking about letting negative emotions go, and one of the people asked for more specific information about how this could be accomplished.  For me, just the information that an automatic emotional response lasts only 90 seconds is key.  That's the time in which I need to acknowledge the emotion and realize that it is telling me something about my life that I may need to look at more carefully or  change. After 90 seconds has passed, I am back in control, and I can choose whether to run that emotional program or not.  This is an incredibly empowering thought.  Dr. Taylor distinguishes between observing a negative thought and engaging with it.  It's important that we observe our thoughts and honor them for the information they provide.  It's just as important, though, to learn ways to avoid engaging in negative thoughts and emotions.

On Facebook, I once saw a graphic that said although pain is not a choice, suffering is a choice.  Many would disagree, but Dr. Taylor says that once the physical brain has done its thing with the neuropeptides, the emotional programs don't necessarily have to keep on running.  Suffering is our attitude about the original pain, an extension of the original programming, whether it be an actual physical sensation or a painful situation, such as loss of a loved one.  Dr. Taylor says we can feel pain without having to engage in the "emotional loop" of suffering.

In her book, Dr. Taylor gives some great advice about specific things one can do to interrupt negative loops of thought and associated emotions.  She says everyone should develop at least three "backup"thoughts to use when we are beset by negative emotions such as fear, anger, jealousy, worry, etc.  She, personally, does the following:  1) She chooses to think of something that fascinates her and that she'd like to know more about.  2) She has identified selected memories or people who give her joy, and can revisit them at any time.  3)  She thinks of some activity that she wants to do immediately.  

In my spiritual practice, we are taught to use the spiritually-charged word HU (pronounced like the word "hue" in English).  HU is an ancient name for God, and very powerful.  When we chant HU softly to ourselves, whether inwardly or out loud, it allows us to step back from a situation and avoid prolonging the negative thought programs. 

Dr. Taylor cautions that particularly powerful thoughts are actually the result of more than one circuit simultaneously, so we may need to spend more time and effort to stop the circuits of negative thought.  She suggests that people take up some form of exercise, such as Yoga, Feldkrais, or Tai Chi.  She also suggests learning how to relax, specifically how to consciously relax your muscles, and that we should spend some time relaxing muscles throughout the body from top to bottom.  She also suggests the use of our voices to sing a mantra (such as HU, Om, or something else).  Affirmations, especially when spoken aloud, can be very powerful.  Verbal guided meditation, in which you listen to someone who guides you though an inner experience, is also helpful.  Meditations using other sounds, such as singing bowls, can also be very powerful, as can listening to calming music.

Dr. Taylor suggests a type of meditation or contemplation in which she uses Angel Cards to invite an angel (representing a desired quality such as peace) into her life each day.  She also suggests limiting our viewing of scary movies and TV shows and avoiding negative people.  

Someone I know suggested that the type of music we listen to can also contribute to a negative frame of mind.  He enjoyed listening to Country and Western music, but realized eventually that in every album or CD, there was always at least one song that was a tearjerker, and usually more than one.  He decided to give away his country music CDs to others who might enjoy them.  He said that just being aware of how the lyrics of our favorite songs can cause us to feel or relive sadness, grief, misery, or anger was very empowering.  I would imagine the same goes for books, as well.  Stephen King may be a great author, but if you are having  trouble getting  rid of fearful thoughts, his books are probably not the wisest choice of reading material.

Dr. Taylor says she realized when she was recovering from the stroke that the dominant emotion of the right brain is joy, and she has learned to tap into that feeling whenever she needs to.  Her "stroke of insight" was that we all have this ability to tap into the right brain, where we can experience peace, joy, and a feeling of connectedness with God.  We can experience ourselves as Soul, separate from the physical body.  

In her book, Dr. Taylor wondered why some people don't choose to make themselves happy, and theorized that some of the negative emotional loops such as anger and fear are familiar and therefore comforting in their familiarity, whereas contentment and peace may be unfamiliar, and therefore frightening.  She quoted Albert Einstein, who said, "I must be willing to give up what I am in order to become what I will be."  Dr. Taylor also mentioned that when people are angry or critical of others, they may feel that they are in the right, so their feelings are justified.  She reminds us in one of the quotes that I shared at the beginning of this blog entry that we may need to give up our need to be right in order to be happy.  "Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?" is a question that many of us have had to answer for ourselves.  In describing fear, Dr. Taylor says that this negative emotion involves expectations of the future that we often don't question.  She offers an acronym to help us process our fears.  Fear can be thought of as False Expectations Appearing Real.  It may behoove us to examine the assumptions that are the basis of our fears.

In learning to control our brain functions, we can exert more control over our lives.  Dr. Taylor ends by exhorting her readers to observe and learn more about the ways in which their own brains function: "Own your power and show up for your life." 

Powerful advice! After all, they say that the key to success is, "Just show up."  :-)


You can visit Dr. Taylor's websites by clicking on these hyperlinks:  Jill Bolte Taylor Home and My Stroke of Insight.

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