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Book Review: My Stroke of Insight – Spirituality and Our Brains

July 15, 2008

At this point, Jill Bolte Taylor’s bestseller My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey, hardly needs my endorsement. But I thought I would write about it anyway, specifically from a spiritual perspective. In case you’ve managed to miss it, this book is written by a neuroanatomist (specialist in the brain’s anatomy) that had a stroke at 37, and over the course of a morning, lost the ability to speak and move.  However, through it all, she retained alot of her knowledge of the brain, and so knew what was happening to her, and what parts of her brain were being impacted, as the stroke progressed. It took her eight long years to recover all of her prior functions. She gives a detailed, personal account of both her stroke experience, and her long recovery process.

What is most fascinating in Jill’s case is that she mostly lost left brain function. The left hemisphere of our brain is usually considered the ‘logical’ side, and the side that helps us structure language, sequence instructions, and rationalize in general. Our right hemisphere is popularly considered the ‘intuitive’ and ‘creative’ side (although some scientists would take issue with that) – the side that helps us see connections between different pieces of knowledge, and read beneath the surface of an event or situation. In Jill’s case, she was plunged into a world of right brain perception, without the left brain to structure (or some might say to inhibit) what she experienced. The results are downright mystic, consider:

-“the boundaries of my earthly body dissolved and I melted into the universe” (p. 49)

– “my consciousness ventured unfettered into the peaceful bliss of my divine right mind” (p. 61)

– “I learned the meaning of simply being” (p. 68 )

– “I experienced people as concentrated packages of energy” (p. 74)

All of these experiences are so similar to those described by mystics of every religious tradition. It would seem that mystic experience, and particularly meditation, is at least partially a process of shutting down our left hemispheres and moving our awareness into the right hemispheres of our brain. Right there within the physical organ of our brain we already possess a doorway into another mode of being and seeing. Meditation and other contemplative practices simply offer us a way to find this doorway, by helping us to quiet the parts of our brain that limit how we normally perceive things.

Jill’s account also begs the question as to whether women are particularly well-suited to meditation (despite the historic dominance of men in the world’s ‘wisdom traditions’.) Books like The New Feminine Brain by Dr. Mona Schulz point out that on average, women have four times as many connections between their left and right brain hemispheres (see my post on Multitasking for a little more about this). This means we might be better at integrating left and right brain functionality, and at accessing our right brain perceptions in general. Although I don’t like gender stereotypes, particularly in women’s spirituality (see The State of Women’s Spirituality), I do think this has important implications for the type of meditations that women find the most beneficial (no space for that now, but maybe someday!)

Of course, as Jill’s painful recovery experience makes clear, we need our left brains to function in the world. And in the end, spiritual living is about integrating our right and left brain perceptions and knowledge. I have known people (both men and women) that described incredible meditation experiences, but remained jerks in their daily lives:-) So there is more to spirituality than being good at getting into our right brains. But Jill’s book offers a beautiful and accessible look at it all, and triggers many questions about our brains and spirituality. Check it out, and while you’re at it, check out Jill’s website at http://www.mystrokeofinsight.com/ for more ideas along these lines.

For other book reviews on this site, go to the Book category. Or for ideas on incorporating meditation into a busy day, go to the Meditation for Busy Women series.

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