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Monday, April 26, 2010

“Praying on the Right Side of the Brain”

The fifth page for Monday, April 26, 2010

Jill Bolte Taylor is a neuro-anatomist whose work has involved mapping the human brain. “My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey” is an account of her experience during and after a massive stroke, when a blood vessel exploded in the left side of her brain. She describes not only her recovery, but the personal transformation that resulted from this experience.

This section of Bolte Taylor’s book, in which she is describing how she was feeling immediately after the stroke event, points to the possibility of another way of being:

“Although I experienced enormous grief for the death of my left hemisphere consciousness- and the woman I had been, I concurrently felt tremendous relief. That Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor had grown up with lots of anger and a lifetime of emotional baggage that must have required a lot of energy to sustain. She was passionate about her work and her advocacy. She was intensely committed to living a dynamic life. But despite her likable and perhaps even admirable characteristics, in my present form I had not inherited her fundamental hostility. I had forgotten about my brother and his illness. I had forgotten about my job and all the things in my life that brought me stress- and with this obliteration of memories, I felt both relief and joy. I had spent a lifetime of 37 years being enthusiastically committed to “do-do-doing” lots of stuff at a very fast pace. On this special day, I learned the meaning of simply “being”… I shifted from the doing consciousness of my left brain to the being-consciousness of my right brain. I morphed from feeling small and isolated to feeling enormous and expansive. I stopped thinking in language and shifted to taking new pictures of what was going on in the present moment. I was not capable of deliberating about past or future-related ideas because those cells were incapacitated. All I could perceive was right here, right now, and it was beautiful.” (p.68)

Bolte Taylor’s view that the mystical capacity is “hard-wired’ into the neurological circuitry of the right brain is not shared by all brain scientists, but has nonetheless entered our culture, and had a major influence, largely due to the work of Betty Edwards, the author of “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”. Early in that now classic text, Edwards quotes a neurosurgeon named Richard Berglund:

“You have two brains: a left and a right. Modern brain scientists now know that your left brain is your verbal and rational brain, it thinks serially and reduces its thoughts to numbers, letters, and words… Your right brain is your non-verbal and intuitive brain; it thinks in patterns, or pictures composed of ‘whole things’ and does not comprehend reductions, either numbers, letters, or words. “ (Edwards, p.xx)

Edwards was inspired to develop a new way of teaching drawing to her high school art students based on the insight that we have different “cognitive modes”.

A more recent book called “The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientists’s Case for the Existence of the Soul”, by Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary, describes Beauregard’s work to identify the areas of the brain which are active during mystical or spiritual experiences. Beauregard’s interest is to make the case for a non-materialist view of the human mind, to show that “your mind does exist, that it is not merely your brain. Your thoughts and feelings cannot be dismissed or explained away by firing synapses and physical phenomena alone. In a solely material world, ‘will power’ or ‘mind over matter’ are illusions, there is no such thing as purpose or meaning, there is no room for God. Yet many people have experiences of these things, and we present evidence that these experiences are real. “ (Beauregard and O’Leary, p.x)

Beauregard’s research group conducted neurological scans of fifteen Carmelite nuns “while they recalled and relived their most significant mystical experience”. They also scanned the nuns during a normal restful state, which provided a baseline for comparision. While Beauregard’s study results do not support the idea of there being a “God-spot” particularly on the right side of the brain, he does assert that brain activity is observably different during a mystical state.

In interviews at the end of the experiment the nuns were asked to describe their mystical experience. “the nuns said that they had felt the presence of God and his unconditional and infinite love as well as plenitude and peace.”

(There will be no fifth page next week, as Rev. Darrow will be away with his family on a spring break.)