How a neuroanatomist studied her own stroke as it happened

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40 Responses to “How a neuroanatomist studied her own stroke as it happened”

  1. Renwick says:

    Sort of related, the neuroscientist Oliver Sacks is going blind because of an ocular melanoma and has been studying his condition:

    “Eighteen months ago, Sacks noticed a looming shadow in his field of vision. The darkness was ocular melanoma, a rare type of eye cancer. The cancer slowly spread, and Sacks felt his sight recede. As a neurologist, he is morbidly fascinated by his own condition and keeps detailed notes on all of his visual problems. “My scotoma [blind spot] is Australia-shaped,” Sacks says, “about thirty degrees across. It’s almost like a window, and there are constantly hallucinations inside it. Just this morning I was staring at my clock radio and saw a crowd of tiny people inside it.”

    Sacks shows me his “melanoma journals”—”Melanoma is such a lovely word,” he remarks—which are full of rough sketches of his visual sensations. There is one drawing that shows a torso with a scratched-out face, just a slew of horizontal lines. “That’s my first horrified sketch of when I couldn’t see my own head,” Sacks says. “I looked in the mirror one morning, and there was just a shadow there.” Sacks is also fascinated by how his mind compensates for the blind spot, automatically “filling in” the new void in his senses. “If I wait for a few moments,” he says, “The form just creeps in from the periphery, like ice crystallizing. And then I look away, and the scotoma returns.”

    There is something deeply poignant about watching Sacks deal with his decaying sight. It’s as if he’s become a character from one of his books, bewildered by his own brain. He can’t help but continually interrupt himself in conversation, remarking on the strangeness of what he’s just experienced. His desk is littered with typewritten pages about his blind spot, which he struggles to type since he can’t see the keys. “I’ve always had a great fear of losing central vision. Especially in the past few weeks, it seems to get worse each day,” Sacks says. “But now I’ve come to a deal with the melanoma. If it takes my vision and leaves me my life, that’s okay with me.”

    http://seedmagazine.com/news/2007/10/the_listener.php?page=all

  2. Elrohir says:

    @16 When you’re suffering from brain damage that results in you losing the ability to read, understand speech, figure out where your body begins or ends, and completely lose your attachment to reality, which is more likely?

    A. You happen by chance to also trigger some brain state that makes you figure out a cosmic truth
    B. Your brain is so messed up that whatever you’re thinking at the moment is most likely complete nonsense?

    I go with B. There’s lots of evidence around that the ability to bring the brain into any particular state via brain damage, chemicals, meditation, etc doesn’t necessarily mean that whatever is being perceived has any relationship with reality.

    A quote from http://www.geometricvisions.com/Madness/schizoaffective-disorder/visions.html for you:

    One evening as I was walking across a parking lot at the California Institute of Technology, I looked up to see a Yin-Yang symbol in the sky stretching from horizon to horizon. Shimmers of energy radiated from Mt. Wilson to the North. I felt a deep chord resonating through my body, the vibration of the Universe penetrating deep into my bones. I was as tall as giant striding across that parking lot that evening.
    At that instant I Knew. I knew my Purpose.
    I had been walking to my weekly appointment with my therapist in downtown Pasadena. I hurried on to our meeting, and when I arrived I excitedly explained my revelation to her.
    “Mike,” she replied, “you’re not making any sense”.

    Some people hear voices. Some also see recursive Ying-Yangs in the sky, hallucinate police car lights and fear that nazis are hiding in the bushes in the garden. I don’t see why feeling there’s some sort of energy is any more real than any of the above.

  3. ellenst says:

    I’ve been recommending a book by Jill Bolte Taylor called “My Stroke of Insight” to everyone I know. It’s an amazing story, both uplifting and powerful on three levels: physical, emotional, and spiritual, but the spiritual aspect alone makes this the best book I’ve read all year.

    How often do you get to hear a neuroscientist describe having a stroke, nearly dying and finding Nirvana, and then making a miraculous recovery so that she’s back to teaching medical students!?!

    I came away with a renewed sense of understanding, wonder and hopefulness about the capabilities of the human brain. I give “My Stroke of Insight” highest marks!

    You can get the book for just $16.47 with free shipping from Amazon!

  4. ill lich says:

    This seems contradictory.

  5. dougrogers says:

    The point is elrohir, that we have two hemisphere’s, not just a left hemisphere. There must be some value in having a right hemisphere.

    And I think that Jill Bolte Taylor can discriminate between non-dominant brain states and schizo-affective disorders.

    Is the energy real or no? Who can say. It’s just another way of perceiving it. No less valid.

  6. Teresa Nielsen Hayden / Moderator says:

    StriatedPattern (12), extreme states are an interesting place to go, but normal cognition is where we live, and we get homesick for it.

    Kyle (13): taking hallucinogens, being neurologically debilitated, and being insane are three different things, and no two instances of any one of them are identical.

    Near as I can tell, you think all the phenomena of consciousness are tricks of the brain. Why the insistence on radical doubt in re this one?

    Elrohir (18), consciousness is a complicated thing. As we move from one set of circumstances to another, we shift the focus of our attention. Some aspects of our experience seldom or never get our full attention. It can happen that if our common modes for processing perception get shut down, we can win up focusing our complete attention on one of those seldom-considered aspects. What we perceive at that time is not necessarily false.

    “There’s lots of evidence around that the ability to bring the brain into any particular state via brain damage, chemicals, meditation, etc doesn’t necessarily mean that whatever is being perceived has any relationship with reality.”

    Last I heard, it wasn’t absolutely proven that any of our brain tricks connect with objective reality.

  7. Kid says:

    It does sound eerily similar to someone who had a psychedelic experience, and this is probably the first lecture I’ve seen that sums things up. I’m pretty stunned to watch her scientific explanation to all these phenomena, such as Out-Of-Body Experience, schizophrenia, “Energy” and Alice in Wonderland syndrome.

    While I can listen to my (stoned) friends how ‘wonderful’ it is when they are stoned, I can tell that taking drugs to experience them is too much of a price to pay, when all I need is to train my brain to think in left or right hemispheres.

    It must have been a pretty painful experience for her to recover for 8 years, but what she concluded out of it is magical. Glad to hear that she is able again.

    TED Talks are great lectures to see, especially when I haven’t been able to go to lectures ever since graduation. And this is the best lecture I had ever watched.

  8. ellenst says:

    I’ve been recommending a book by Jill Bolte Taylor called “My Stroke of Insight” to everyone I know. It’s an amazing story, both uplifting and powerful on three levels: physical, emotional, and spiritual, but the spiritual aspect alone makes this the best book I’ve read all year.

    How often do you get to hear a neuroscientist describe having a stroke, nearly dying and finding Nirvana, and then making a miraculous recovery so that she’s back to teaching medical students!?!

    I came away with a renewed sense of understanding, wonder and hopefulness about the capabilities of the human brain. I give “My Stroke of Insight” highest marks!

    You can get the book for just $16.47 with free shipping from Amazon!

  9. Elrohir says:

    @19 Obviously there’s some value to it being there. Otherwise it wouldn’t be there in the first place. It’d have atrophied or never developed at all.

    My point is that having half your brain shut down while the rest manages to remain working doesn’t necessarily mean that the half that remains will be able to function correctly in that situation and produce something that has any relationship with reality.

    More interesting stuff on brain hemispheres here:
    http://www.hypnosisschool.org/50.php

  10. Takuan says:

    @30
    it’s OK, she gave it back to me after she was done

  11. leonora says:

    I had right temporal lobe epilesy for over twenty years triggered by music and this woman is describing what happened to me during a fit.
    All the time i felt cosmic and at one with the world another part of me was arguing now come on lets remember who you are look you’ve got a busy road to cross now come on. I’m cured now but oh the horrers of trying to cross a road when a car radio blares out music. She explains so much of what was happening inside my head.

  12. leonora says:

    well I cant find my post so will resubmit
    I had right temporal lobe epilepsy caused my music and if I happened to cross a road and hear music I would have a fit it did feel cosmic but another part of me would be saying come on now we have this very busy road to cross lets get our act together. so this neuroscientist describes my fits exacly

  13. dougrogers says:

    Each informs the other in order to make us whole.

  14. jody says:

    This is the first description of nondual realization that I’ve come across that appears to be completely biologically-mediated. The reason I’m convinced it was an authentic nondual realization is that it only occurred when the left side of her brain shut down momentarily. Also, just like most examples of nondual realization that I’m familiar with, once she knew herself as the limitless self, she was able to recall the same understanding in realtime, regardless of the state of her left brain or where she was weighting her individual identity.

  15. Tenn says:

    @26
    Speak not Physics at me! I’m failing! I haven’t seen that movie, but I know the story of that fellow- isn’t he the one who wrote an entire story by blinking his eye when the letter he needed was pointed at? You just connected astral projection and nirvana in my mind. Intriguing, though a.p. is hardly removing yourself from your own consciousness. Interesting ‘out of hands’ post!

  16. Antinous says:

    I know that it’s a little late in the game to notice this, but she’s holding a brain!

  17. searconflex says:

    She will be well prepared for the Supercontext!

    ; )

  18. Takuan says:

    spread this video

  19. Tenn says:

    @13
    Is there any substantiating proof that we are connected? Our brains operate on relatively recently discovered electrical signals; our bodies rely on magnetic forces, biochemical relays, all sorts of things. What if there are other forces?

    Can you say that the genetic machine did not also kick up beings with mental capacities that we do not understand and that may extend to a force of interconnectedness?

  20. Takuan says:

    even a lie, if it is a beautiful lie, can do good

  21. JosephWilk says:

    that was so intense.

  22. Paul Long says:

    Speaking of non-dualism, the most thought-provoking book I’ve ever read is Julian Jaynes’, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Read it.

  23. dougrogers says:

    BOTONO, we are bound by language to make discriminations. Left-brain likes discrimination and difference.

    I’m not so sure that ‘energy of the universe’ is what she felt. What she felt was her perception. She was in her perception, not that she was a receptor, as that implies separation, a sender and a receiver.

    Discrimination and difference is left brain.

    She certainly ‘felt as one’ with the universe, but I don’t think that is the same as ‘a universal flow of energy’ that physicist study. (Maybe that’s my left brain :-) and I’m still a bit of a Materialist about this)

    Her ability to differentiate was shut down. Her consciousness continued- all the inputs still functioned and tried to make sense of it.

    So it is very much like you describe it. That is how left-brain can understand it. Still, it was a real experience, but not outside of herself.

  24. litcritter says:

    While I agree that we spend too much time in the left brain, the right brain isn’t all that, either. Participation in a violent mob can give you the same kind of oceanic experience Dr. Bolte Taylor had.

  25. kray417 says:

    I just noticed the brain too, but where is the moonwalking bear?

  26. Doug Nelson says:

    That was touching and wonderful. It choked me right up.

  27. Boutwell says:

    I read “My Stroke of Insight” in one sitting – I couldn’t put it down. I laughed. I cried. It was a fantastic book (I heard it’s a NYTimes Bestseller and I can see why!), but I also think it will be the start of a new, transformative Movement! No one wants to have a stroke as Jill Bolte Taylor did, but her experience can teach us all how to live better lives. Her TED.com speech was one of the most incredibly moving, stimulating, wonderful videos I’ve ever seen. Her Oprah Soul Series interviews were fascinating. They should make a movie of her life so everyone sees it. This is the Real Deal and gives me hope for humanity.

  28. botono9 says:

    @19

    I didn’t get the sense that she was talking about some kind of special “life energy”, but that she had a realization of herself as a receptor of all the energy in the universe. Matter, we know, is but bound up energy. Crack it open and giant explosions happen.

    So it’s not so far-fetched to say that she had a real experience of feeling at one with a universal flow of energy, which is essentially what every physicist is studying.

  29. Antinous says:

    It choked me right up.

    Have you checked your pupils?

  30. Draconum says:

    Wow. That literally had me in tears… ‘intense’ indeed.

  31. StriatedPattern says:

    I’m sure that state of mind would be a wonderful thing to experience, but you can’t live like that. What she experienced wasn’t a clearer view of reality but a warped half-step in the brain’s understanding of it. It might give you insight into the workings of the brain but if we could give everybody a hit of this, then I think we’d all just want another hit.

  32. Kyle Armbruster says:

    Okay, time for me to poop on the party.

    This sense of expansiveness, of one-ness, of nirvana was a symptom of catastrophic brain damage. It’s not spiritual. It’s not magical. It’s honest madness.

    Just like psychedelic experiences.

    I think you can learn from these states and use what you learn to effect positive change in your actual life. But they’re just tricks of the brain.

    That being said, the logical world is also a trick of the brain. You are a trick of the brain. You don’t really exist. You have no spirit. There is no life force. You’re just a cloud of noise kicked up by the genetic machine, and when you die the noise will be silenced and you and the universe will cease.

    We are not connected. We don’t exist.

  33. Antinous says:

    No wonder you’re so cranky.

  34. Takuan says:

    Yes Kyle, and your view is included and subsumed in the collective reality. If it is any consolation, your aloneness is a hallucination.

  35. vib says:

    @24
    Actually, in a pure physical sense we are all the sum of vibrations, that happen to react to each other so that they form lasting structures. We are grown from the earth, and tuned to its frequencies – grown from the universe, and so on. Check out Schumann resonance for example. It’s all physics and quite mundane, without any mystique. We are able to live in our own space in the universe, which is much complex and deeper than we can normally perceive.

    One is able to leave the body at will after some exercise. It’s independent of physical perceptions. The existence is a continuum, where the subjective reality is determined by how one feels or vibrates with the surroundings and other personalities, who share the same space.

    This is quite basic. The most natural state is the state of enlightenment. It’s veiled by all of us, who consciously or subconsciously elongate egos to the realities of others, and drag them into an everlasting mire of conflicts.

    Disconnection from the human experience is not the end, and it’s useful to learn about it while one lives, thus learning to live a human life. If it all crashes at you in the moment of death, the suffering may never cease.

    One is able to come up with multitude of stories, but they all engulf the same elements of life and the same perceptions about experiencing the totality, which ultimately has the change of its own. The more corrupted the less true.

    I was only about to recommend a movie, but got a little out of hands (: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0401383/

  36. aelfscine says:

    Splendid

  37. dougrogers says:

    Kyle, yes, her experience was a result of brain damage but her experience was not madness. It was a result of a temporary suppression of the dominant brain process. Many Buddhist masters throughout history have done the same thing without it being a stroke.

    We are connected. We don’t exist.

  38. silentsprawl says:

    Sounds a lot like meditation.

  39. archcvd says:

    Ask someone who’s had an intense psychedelic experience (with mushrooms or LSD) and they will most likely recount something eerily similar to this.

  40. JDspeeder1 says:

    I’d only want to experience this if I could turn it off easily.

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