01/06/2013 07:06 pm ET

A Stroke of Insight For All of Us

Watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

"My Stroke of Insight" is a brilliant title. The first thing we "hear" is the positive word 'insight.' Then we realize a stroke, a bad thing, gave someone a wonderful experience: insight. Also, we see the cleverness and dramatic communication skills of the writer who had a stroke. Then we find out the stroke brought her not only insight, but also nirvana! Bliss!

As a neuroanatomist like Jill Bolte Taylor I, too, have held a human brain and looked down the crevasse between the two hemispheres. I've shown it to students, as she shows it to the audience in her TEDTalk. Also, as a neuroscientist who studies reward systems and the euphoria of romance, I am intrigued. This abnormal activity and a lesion of a Harvard intellectual's brain made her feel euphoria. I wonder why and how.

I don't agree that it is her right hemisphere alone that gave her feelings of Nirvana. I don't think that the right versus the left brain are responsible for our balance or imbalance, but it doesn't really matter exactly why she felt that way, or whether it is our right/left hemisphere balance or not. The important thing to me is that so many people find it easier to think about healing processes for themselves if they realize that experience, balance and attitude is based in brain physiology, which it certainly is.

There are three big neuroscience questions in current research to notice that her story touches on: 1) the feeling of euphoria and well-being; 2) the unconscious, involuntary level of processing; for example how the hemispheres, where her stroke occurred, normally regulate emotion and "chatter" that interferes with attention to our world; 3) the sense of self (boundaries/no boundaries) that is dependent on brain circuits. These are each fascinating topics that research groups are working on separately, because they are such big questions they each need a large collaborative group. Results from this research can bring fascinating insights to us all.

But, it could be important to recognize that it is probably more than the right hemisphere that produced Jill Bolte Taylor's positive experience. Such a stroke would cause damage to her right hemisphere, too, as well as the left where the stroke started, and to circuits below the hemispheres. After just a few months, you can see the extent of degeneration beyond the focus of a stroke, and it is extensive. It certainly crosses over to the other hemisphere. Her right hemisphere was certainly paralyzed/damaged, too. The lesson here is that the 50 billion microcircuits that Dr. Taylor summarizes so beautifully as part of her "being" are distributed throughout our brains -- right/left/old/new/upper/lower parts of our brains. I think this has an additional message for those who want to access their creative self, become one with the universe, even just work within a feeling of well-being most of the time. We can pause; then recognize our whole brain, our whole selves; euphoria comes not only from the right hemisphere, but also comes from deep within a primitive part of the brain, near that spinal cord that was the tail of the brain Dr. Taylor held during her TEDTalk. From brain basement to front door of our hemispheres -- the whole mansion of our brain can be lit and throbbing with life as we encounter our own insights. A Stroke of Insight is there for all of us, as Dr. Taylor assures us. But meaningful, practical insight can be complex to achieve and for many of us it may require attention to every level of our brains and being, from motor reflexes to emotional control systems. Jill Bolte Taylor's title and story, both, are brilliant. She is a great example of how creativity can fulfill and heal us, and move intellectual history forward by realizing the details and depths of our physiology and anatomy.

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