Evangelist for a Balanced Brain: An Interview with Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor
Neuroanatomist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor has an exuberant, glowing, almost childlike zest for life. She is a marvel to spend time with, as she celebrates life in the moment and gets excited by the commonplace. As a consequence of a debilitating stroke, she was given a chance to come back from the edge of death and learn a new way of thinking.
Fifteen years ago, at 37, Taylor, a Harvard trained neuroanatomist and spokeswoman for the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center, had a stroke that traumatized her left hemisphere and eliminated her math and language skills. She felt her mind deteriorate to the point that she could not walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of her life. Taylor was experiencing an arterial-venous malformation, a rare form of stroke. Several weeks later, she underwent surgery to remove a golf-ball-sized blood clot that was pressuring the language center in her brain's left hemisphere.
In her recovery process, her mother became her chief caregiver. Taylor says she was fortunate that her mother was willing to forgo traditional rehabilitation techniques. At the time, Taylor did not know who she was, and had no recollection of her family. As she slowly got better, she was able to apply her neuroanatomical knowledge toward her recovery.
When Taylor lost the left hemisphere functioning of her brain, she lost all of the normal abilities to define, organize and categorize information, but she gained the ability to be intuitive and creative. In the absence of the left mind's describing, judging, organizing, and critically analyzing skills, and its dominating ego and inhibition, she gained a uninhibited right mind, which processes information in a completely unique way as compared to the left mind. Now, her right hemisphere, which typically houses nonverbal and artistic tasks, has taken up the bulk of her cognition. Taylor achieved her present serenity in a unique way, and urges people not to wait for a stroke to cultivate right-brain functions.
In her bestselling book My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey, Taylor details the process for recovery and the insight she's gained about the different functions of the left and right halves of her brain. Based upon her personal experience and scientific training, Taylor is now helping others rebuild their brains from trauma, and advancing an understanding of how we can consciously influence the neural circuitry underlying what we think, how we feel, and how we react to life's circumstances.
Taylor is now on a singular mission teaching people to more readily exercise the circuitry of their own right hemispheric power with the intention of helping all human beings become more humane. It is quite ironic that Taylor, a quintessential left brain individual, should be the one to have a stroke that transformed her into a powerful voice for brain recovery, and finding inner peace. "I believe the more time we spend running our deep inner peace circuitry, then the more peace we will project into the world, and ultimately the more peace we will have on the planet," she says.
Her book quickly became a New York Times Bestseller, and editions have already been published in the UK, Germany, Brazil, Holland, and France, with 24 different language versions in the works. Her recent exposure to the world through conference presentations, television, and web casting of her talks has made her a celebrity, and in 2008, Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world. A Hollywood film is in development on her life, and she spends much of her time traveling to conferences and lecture halls, telling her compelling story, spreading the gospel of brain consciousness, and being the National Spokesperson for the Mentally Ill for the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center.
Before her stroke, Taylor was known as the Singing Scientist due to her touring lecture on "How To Get Your Brain To Do What You Want It To Do," that featured her impassioned singing out for brain donations for research. Her interest in the postmortem investigation of the human brain is rooted in her brother's schizophrenia. True to her right brain tendencies, Taylor is an accomplished stained glass, oil based clay, and sand artist, and has recently been making a series of multi-colored stained glass brain replicas.
Dr. Taylor is now working with Sony Pictures and Imagine Entertainment on the creation of a feature film adaptation of her bestseller "My Stroke of Insight." Screenwriter Semi Chellas is busy working on the screenplay and Ron Howard will be the director. Jodie Foster is entertaining the idea of portraying Dr. Taylor.
We met up in San Francisco during the annual Green Festival last November just after she has spoken to a large and enthusiastic crowd.
David Kupfer: How did your stroke help you reconceptualize your mission related to brain consciousness?
Jill Bolte Taylor: I don't think I had one before. Before the stroke, I was more about my personal ambitions of climbing the Harvard ladder, about doing what I needed to do to help people who had severe mental illness, but I certainly didn't understand what that really meant, what that felt like to them. The stroke gave me an opportunity to have an altered perception of reality, so I knew what it felt like to be mentally ill, I knew what it felt like to be treated by a society of people who are fearful of people whose brains don't function normally because they don't know how to communicate with us. That shifted me more into the perspective of how I can help us more collectively, instead of how can I help me. The basic shift was one from an ambitious career-oriented individual to more of a humanitarian and compassionate way of being in the world and promoting that, celebrating that, and trying to increase that in others.
What are some of the lessons that you've learned about best treatment for stroke victims?
There are two pieces of language I am trying to help people change. One is instead of using "stroke victim," use "stroke survivor." If I had a stroke and I survived it than I am a stroke survivor. If I died, I was a stroke victim. I can't help those people. I might be able to help their loved ones come to more peace about what the experience might have been like for them, but if you survived, you're a survivor.
I also don't say people suffered a stroke, people had a stroke. If we use negative language, then you're project onto me "oh I suffered a stroke. I am suffering, oh I ought to be suffering, I am the victim and I am suffering, oh I'm pathetic!" Well that's very different than if I walk in and say "hey, you are stroke survivor and these are the tools that we are going to use in order to help you get back and get better and find your way." It is like, "oh man, I'm a survivor, I'm a survivor, and I'm so fortunate I am a survivor! Give me a team, let's do it!" Completely different.
I think sleep is critically important for the brain. If the brain is wounded, and it is begging to go to sleep, then it's begging to shut down external stimulation because it can't process it, and it is traumatized. It's just like us, if I am a person and I've had trauma in my life, then I need to go inside and I need to do what I need to do to be with me in order to help heal me, and I can go back into people and interact with people again. The cells are just like that; if they have been traumatized, they need to huddle in and heal themselves and get what they need, and protect themselves, and then they reach back out into the circuitry again. So I think sleep is enormous.
So of special importance is the way that people relate to individuals who have experienced a stroke.
Yes, how other people treat me has a profound impact on me. If the doctors are saying, "if she doesn't get it back in six months she'll never get it back," and my family -- my caregiver team -- is believing that, then they are going to push me real hard for six months and then give up; and once they give up, well I'm probably going to give up too, because I just lost my cheering squad. So I think we need to recognize that because of the neural plasticity, because of the regeneration of neurons, don't put a limit on me, let me grow. It might take 10 years, it might take 12 years, let me grow, it might take 20 years!
You said it was a consequence of you being at home rather than in an institution that made such a big difference in your full recovery.
I don't think I would've recovered half so well if I had been; I can guarantee you that if I were in an institution where I was placed on amphetamines in the morning, set up in a wheelchair, and taken out into a social environment with TVs blaring on me, I'd have chosen to zone out. It would have been pure pain. I would have disconnected. I wouldn't be here today. I would be there, in that same condition. Compassion in medicine is something that we really need to focus on.
How can the lessons of your experience translate into the human development field?
I think of human development from a biological standpoint: you have to crawl before you can walk, and you have to walk before you run. I think there might be a reverse of that: from trauma you do have to go back to those stages. So I had to crawl before I could walk, before I could run. I had to go through normal development. As far as recovery is concerned, I think it will make a significant impact, because people are no longer saying the negative. There has just been this really negative attitude towards brain trauma. Yeah it's a tragedy, it's not a good thing, you wouldn't wish it on anybody. But that doesn't mean that it's the end of the world, and that this person has to be at this level forever. You can always increase someone's quality of life if they're willing to work at it, and if there is a team of people who are willing to work with them on it. I firmly believe that, because it is cells, cells responding to stimulation.
In your professional career have you seen a transformation in how health professionals are looking at this issue?
Some. You know the book has only been out since May, six months, and I get still a least 100 emails a day from people, many of them are professionals, nurses, doctors, occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech therapists, saying "Thank you, what insight you've given me into working with my patients." Those are the doctors I would want to go to now, but that's still a tiny number in comparison to the big field in the states. So in the states it's making these individual impacts.
And in other nations?
Some have an advantage in that they are smaller, so for example, the book is coming out in France this month. And I was interviewed by this guy who was a general practitioner and he's retired and now is a writer for the magazine that goes out to all the general practitioners in France. He and I had a lengthy interview so that every practitioner gets this book free of charge, so they all get it, they all read through, it is one of the books specifically for that population, and I was interviewed by one of their own, he knew what questions they would want to ask. So to be able to infiltrate a country like France, which is so much physically smaller than this country, to be able to get everybody thinking differently, it's like okay now they can establish a system that can incorporate more of these ideas more quickly. And that's beautiful to me.
It is very exciting, and the same thing happened in Holland. They took me to the major rehabilitation organization in Amsterdam and I got tour of the facility, and met the fellow who runs the group and he had read the book. And for someone like him to be on board -- he infiltrates into all the other villages, if you will, into how they do rehab and it works out brilliantly because that way I can have a real impact.
Is it rare for stroke survivors to fully recover as you have?
It depends on where the hemorrhage is. If you have a problem at the brainstem which is not what I had, it is very life threatening. If you survive, then you can recover very well, because you haven't lost your cognitive mind, you didn't lose higher thinking. For me, because I had a cortical problem, I lost my cognitive thinking, but it was not life-threatening, it was life-threatening but not as if I'd have that hemorrhage at that brainstem, I would have been dead if that hemorrhage had happened at my brainstem, it was that big. Lots of people do recover; lots of people do not recover. I think that's based on the fact that every stroke is different, every trauma is different, and the people around us are different in the way that they treat us.
I was treated as though I would recover. I was given all the tools that I needed in order to recover. I was given enough sleep so that I was not exhausted and over stimulated all the time so that I could actually try to think again and regain ability. So I think it's totally dependent on the environment.
I have received lots of e-mails from lots of people who've said I've had this traumatic experience, and I too have recovered, and everybody calls me a miracle. And I write them back and say beautiful. Thanks for sharing. I have a lot of people who write me and say I had the same thing you did and I have not recovered remotely close to that. I say read the book, don't give up, and give yourself a new perspective about what you need to do in order to set yourself up for success.
A lot of people do recover amazingly well over long periods of time. I had someone who recently said, " I am in my 15th year of recovery, post trauma, and I'm still getting better." So if the doctors have said to you, six months forget it, or two years, forget it, and two years goes by and I forget trying and I stop because I believe my doctor, I think that's bad. I think it's one of the great myths of the nervous system is that it is finished in its process of rehabilitation after a limited amount of time.
You've said you're grateful you've had a stroke.
Absolutely. It's given me a whole new perspective of life. It's made me an evangelist for a balanced brain. I want people to use both of their hemispheres. And I want them to recognize that they have more power over what's going on between their ears than they ever had any idea. I think that's important. I think the more responsibility we take for what's going on inside of our brains, then the happier we are going to be. I am an advocate for joy.
Why do you suppose so many people don't choose happiness?
I think a lot of them don't know that they can. I think that they experience their emotions and experience their grief and sadness; they don't know that they can have a relationship with it. I just don't think they know the simplicity that we are circuitry. We have a choice in what circuits we run. Does that mean avoid heavy emotions? Absolutely not. It means allow yourself to experience the emotion. The more you keep it at bay, the more it's going to beckon on your mind. Allow yourself to welcome it, savor it, celebrate it, and let it go in 90 seconds.
How do you find a balance between observing your circuitry and engaging your circuitry?
I think that's also a choice. It's thrilling to engage your circuitry because then it becomes me. I am my anger, I am my sadness, I am my fear, I am, it is me. It consumes me. I know who I am, I feel those things. Well, that's one attitude. The other attitude is, I am in this moment running my circuitry, is that circuitry that I really want to run? And how long am I going to run it? And I do have a choice on that. So, I think it's the same circuitry, it's a different perspective of whether I am it, or it is circuitry, and I have some say.
How then does one take full responsibility for one's circuitry?
At first it's recognizing that everything is circuitry. And then I have to be willing to say oooh I feel myself getting angry, oooh, it feels so good, oooh, I'm going to be angry for a while, oooh, I'm going to rant and rave, oooh, I'm going to rant and rave to these people, and oooh, I'm going to spread it over here. Or, I'm running my anger circuitry. I don't like the way it feels in my body, because it's destructive to my health and my stress level. So I'm going to pass it away. I'm going to let it do its thing for 90 seconds and then move on. And take responsibility for them. Owning my power, taking my triggers away from you.
Does the plasticity of our brains' cellular neurons guarantee that few brain injuries are absolute?
It opens up new possibilities. Neural plasticity those are two different things. I am a believer in the ability of the body to recover, it's not going to happen immediately, but over time. I look at people who had a miraculous recovery, there's nothing miraculous about it. The cells figured out what they needed to do in order to create recovery. To me, is that miraculous? No, I think it's science that doesn't have an understanding or language so we call it a miracle, but biologically, it's the ability of the cells to recover themselves.
Neural plasticity is the ability of the brain, for those beautiful neurons to rewire who they're communicating with moment by moment so that they're constantly changing their conversation and different cells who are involved with that conversation. And as soon as you say that the brain is going to change in order to adapt to its new situation, that's neural plasticity in action. So neural plasticity is this incredible tool that the brain uses in order to adapt to its current situation. Can you constantly choose to get different neural plasticity to happen? Absolutely, and we can manipulate that into all kinds of different ways from the outside in.
Cover an eye with a patch, and those cells that respond to vision, they get bored to death, they want something to do because now they're not getting their own stimulation, so they are going to go to the auditory system and say "hey what are you doing? Can we help you?" And then you have this heightened sense of audition. And then vision comes back on and they come back to their normal function of vision. Because that's what they were designed to do.
The ability of the brain to adapt to its situation is phenomenal. And then you throw in on top of that the ability of the brain to create some new neurons. Not very many, but some very strategically placed neurons. This is recently discovered with alcoholism, you can be a lifelong alcoholic and then stop drinking, and after three months of sobriety your hypoxanthic for learning and memory will grow new neurons, so that you can actually learn and memorize again in a new way that you couldn't three months before when you were drinking.
It's phenomenal what we're learning about the brain and its ability to adapt to its new situation and its own ability to innately define what it needs and to perform that action. Now does that mean that if I have a paralyzed arm where the nerve is cut that I'm going to be able to regenerate that ability? That is a bigger problem, because it's beyond the brain, it is the relationship between the brain, and the body, and the circuitry. And that's a big distinction.
What is the value that you see in imaging and visualization in healing?
I think that when you visualize something, you experience it. And when you allow yourself to re-experience it, that's still communication between the cells, whether there is a motor output or not. There are lots of studies showing individuals who have visualized certain things and maintained their tone in their muscles or the abilities inside their bodies.
I use visualization for what does it feel like to run up steps two at a time. I remember, I remember regularly and I felt that and that was a desire and I think it was a driving force for those cells to figure out what is important, what do I want be able to do again. So I think it's incredibly important.
What sort of techniques would you recommend for turning off the endless loops sometimes found in the left cognitive mind?
I think the most important thing is to consciously choose to bring your mind to the present moment. How you do that? You decide that you're going to see what your eyes are looking at; you bring your consciousness to the present moment. When you are going up the stairs, you look at the steps, you look at the handrail. Most of us unconsciously climb the steps, never thought about the steps, couldn't even tell you what the color of the carpet was, if there was a carpet, because were somewhere else.
Pay attention to the present moment. Bring your mind, bring your ears to the present moment, start savoring the awareness of the information you perceive in the present moment and allow that to grow. And it's like with any circuitry, the more you concentrate on it and experience it, the more it will then develop itself.
It does seem that much of your work is taking a neuroscientist's perspective and a rationale of Buddhist philosophy.
That's exactly essentially what happened. You took a hard-core western medicine neuroscientist at Harvard who specialized in the neurotransmitters and the cells of the brain and gave her an experience that was essentially a complete shift from western thinking to eastern experience. It's certainly not how I defined it at the time. I defined it as a shutdown of circuitry, and the ability to experience anything is the product of our selves. So a Buddhist experience, ability to experience Nirvana or wherever meditation might take them, is circuitry. What cells are shut down and which ones are then activated, and I think I shut down the brain chatter which Andy Newberg has shown in spec machines -- put monks in there, have them pray or meditate and the left hemisphere of the brain becomes quiet and the right side opens up, which is exactly what happened with what I experienced, but through trauma.
Through that process you say you lost your identity, but you gained a fresh sense of innocence. Have you been able to retain that?
Yes, but it's hard, it's very hard in our society, especially now that I've become so popular, the whole celebrity thing is this adoration from the outside that is very ego building. And on top of that, the schedule, to do all the details of my touring is very left hemisphere, detailed work. I'm practicing what I'm preaching. The left hemisphere has got to be engaged, its got to be functional, but it has its role and my right hemisphere has its role and its functions. So for me, I do a presentation but I'm really in my right brain, I am in both brains, but I come from my heart, I come from the experience of my right hemisphere. The biggest difference for me has been how to find that balance and to be a totally productive, efficient human being on the planet and practice what I preach.
How did your recovery affect your creativity?
When I lost the left hemisphere, I lost judgment. And when I lost judgment I lost boundaries. And when I lost boundaries, that meant my art had no guidelines and I could just see whatever I wanted to see, and so what was beauty? So my brain no longer defined for me that experience of beauty, and I just got to be in the present moment to create beauty, and it was beautiful it was a completely different way of doing art and I really liked it, and it was much better than the art that I was doing before because there was no judgment and no limitation to it. And then as I recovered my left hemisphere, I regained those skills. I still drive; I consciously choose to drive my life as a right hemisphere, heart space, intimate space as opposed to a left hemisphere, judgmental place. I can use that side, but I don't like the way it feels in my body.
It can be wicked what our society does to celebrities, but I've seen you've been able to overcome this and stay in the moment with people.
I am just so grateful for my life. For me to be with people, the beauty of giving a presentation is not the presentation, it's the people. Because these are real people, with real hearts and real minds and real souls and real hunger to be connected. I am connected and to meet people who are that open, it's beautiful. And the people who come up to me with tears in their eyes, they are just wide open.
I'm just so grateful to be alive and to have been able to touch this person so deeply with this book and this information for whatever their personal reason. There are lots of different reasons that people find the book and my story attractive. But whatever that reason is, here's a human being who's coming up to me open and I'm meeting that person open, and to me there's nothing more beautiful then that, and that is what feeds me, that connection, the human connection of it all.
The United States is said to be the most overly self-medicated society in the world. What does that say about our collective brain health, and how you think your work can help remedy that?
I think we have a long way to go when it comes to figuring out how to help heal people, and our western culture is really all about treating the symptoms, not solving the real problem. You have western medicine and you have alternative medicine, and alternative medicine is $1 billion industry, and people are craving an alternative way of doing and I think that as long as these spheres are not communicating with one another, which is essentially right hemisphere medicine and left hemisphere medicine, then we are going to have a problem, and some people will find wellness and some people will not.
How have you been able to retain your sense of connection with the universe with your left-brain's influence on individuality?
Oh, I laugh a lot. When my brain starts taking off on these really serious paths, I laugh a lot. I pay very close attention to how feelings and thoughts feel inside of my body. So that if I don't like the way that they feel, I recognize it as one of those things that I need to just shift back to the present moment. I spend time walking, I do my art, I do my music, I play with my dog, I do things that engage me in the present moment and I value that. I meet and spend time with people, because that's a nice way to be in the present moment. I work very hard at it. I wake up in that place, I stay there for a while, and I celebrate that. And before I go to bed at night, I take myself there, I go there, and I celebrate that. If I have something bothering me, I do a lot of laughing. I laugh at that side a lot, because it wants to be so serious. And I let other people take care of a lot of my details. I've had to. My life has been skyrocketed so much that now I have to have other people take care of certain kinds of details. So I let them, and I trust them implicitly.
Your old ego never actually returned after the stroke, did it?
I kind of got a new one. I started a new one, a new little girl. I developed a new individuality. Eventually. At about the year eight mark was when I became solid again. I am an individual again, what am I going to do with that, and how do I feel about that and that's good and that is cool. But she knows her place, if you will. When you've essentially died and fallen off the ladder, you notice the void just fills in around you, and the world goes on just fine without you, it really shows you how not important you are in the big picture, as far as your ego is concerned. Once I did that, it was like I didn't need to go back to that, because there wasn't any point, and so if I'm not going to do that, my other option is to do this, and this is so much more expansive and fun than doing that. But I do, of course I have an ego, I have an identity but she is about eight years old, and I like her like that. Because that way, I do maintain my innocence and my joy.
How do you deal with that portion of your inner storyteller that does not seem to be unconditionally attached to your joy?
I laugh at her. I seriously just laugh and laugh and laugh and laugh and then it's gone. It's just like a little child who comes up and says something to you and you either encourage conversation, or you don't. I just don't encourage the conversation. And specifically, I laugh. It works for me.
You spoke earlier about the conscious relationship with your cells.
Oh yeah, I love my girls. I love 'em, every single one of them. I love them, I love my girls and they know it.
All 50 trillion?
I would not be able to be here without them, I would be able to do this. How many cells does it take to do this? Moving your leg, being able to talk to all of them, so it's a big love fest in here. Lots of joy, celebration, and gratitude.
That seems to be one of your basic tenets.
Basic gratitude. It's because of them that I have this ability again. I go from really infantile looking out in the world seeing no division, no boundary, making no sense in the world whatsoever, no sensory orientation organization, to be a normal functioning human being again. And it's because these beautiful cells created for me these abilities again and I'm very grateful. A million times a day, I'm grateful.
You quote Jerry Joseph about how peace should be the place we begin rather than the place we try to achieve. This seems like an important philosophical plank for you.
Yes, I don't know who said it, but somebody famous: There is always blue sky, the sky is always blue. Peace is always there. And then the clouds and the thoughts come in, and now you have cloudy sky covering up the blue, but the blue if you blow away the clouds, is still there. So to me peace is always there. The thoughts will come into your mind and take you away and distract you away from the fact that you're experiencing peace, but you can blow those away and go back to right here, right now is a perfect moment. Perfect, whole, and beautiful just where we are.
What a gift that in this moment, I can sit here in this form and you can sit there in that form, the miracle of life, 50 trillion beautiful molecular geniuses, and we can communicate with one another. How cool is that? That's like the bottom line of it all. And all the other stuff is just stuff. The blue sky is always there.
So it's only bad weather if you call it that?
Exactly! Its just weather. There's nothing more beautiful then walking in the rain. There's nothing more beautiful than walking in a fresh snow. There's nothing more beautiful than slipping on the ice and falling on your butt. It's like whoa and you are laying there with the air is knocked out of you, and you think that is so cool, if I were dead I wouldn't have been able to have the experience! It's all good! And then the clouds come in and say oh, I wish it had been different. And as soon as the left hemisphere says I wish it had been different from the way it really was then I missed out on something and I'm not happy. Is that a choice? Yes it is a choice.
The endless fear of missing out.
The fear of missing out and the lack of willingness to recognize that what is, is perfect just the way it is.
Always being in the right place at the right time.
Having the right experience. Things are going to happen. People we love are going to die. We can say damn, I'm so mad, or we can say, I'm so grateful, I'm so grateful for the time we had. I'm going to celebrate those memories, I'm going to celebrate that connection, it is mine forever. Or I can be angry, or I can be hurt, or I can be whatever. But I have a choice in how I look at it. And if I come from gratitude, and if I allow myself to feel it, and I'm not afraid of my emotions, I'm not afraid of the stigma essentially that we get by society saying oh, she's over emotional, he's over emotional, it's like no, don't worry about it, feel it, celebrate what you are as a living being. Celebrate that you're capable of having those emotional circuits run. Because that's the power of what you are, it's the difference between you being alive, and you not being alive in order to have it. It's a blessing to your life.
It is the nature of the human experience.
It's totally the nature of the human experience, and the beauty of that. How lucky are we? It's a total miracle, it's beautiful, it's just absolutely beautiful.
You've written about special brain training tools now benefiting everyone over 40, this is a relatively new activity for middle-aged people isn't it?
Yes, you know why though? It's because the Japanese who are huge with toy companies, many of the young women are deciding that they're not going to marry and be reproductive. And so there's a shortage of children in Japan, and the Japanese toy companies are saying where is our audience? We have no audience! And so they're looking at who is the audience going to be? And they decided, well we'll look at the elderly population and give them toys to help their minds. That's what's happening. It's new market development. So now we have baby boomers, there's a market for you. These people are not stupid. So they are going to make toys and toys and more toys for our brains. And we are terrified of Alzheimer's, the baby boomers. They watch their parents go through it, and they don't want to do it themselves.
Could these toys be a panacea to the brain dementia trend?
Right now research is coming out that shows the possibilities of dementia and scientists are showing that the more you exercise your brain and your body, then the less you are at risk for developing dementia.
You've said you are not your thoughts. Does this contradict the notion that you are not what you think you are, what you think is what you are?
I don't even think what you think is what you are. I am not my thoughts. There's no question about that. They are circuitry, and they can run or not run, but that's not me that is a tiny part of me. I'm really just a witness. I am the bigger; I am the all of it, but none of it. That's kind of profound, I wonder if it's true.
Change your thoughts change your life, that's essentially the message.
Absolutely, absolutely. Circuitry, run it or don't run it. It's your choice. Lots of people are choosing to run hostility, run small mindedness, run just this. And if all you run is that little grinding negative voice, well there are people like that.
You think there are influences in our culture that feed that tendency?
Absolutely. We reward children for left-brain thinking, for left-brain acceleration. In business, we reward people for left-brain activity. But I do think it's changing, I do think there is an enormous wave of people recognizing that it is creativity that is going to have a profound influence and a necessity in order for our thriving. Because frankly, all the left hemisphere nitty-gritty details, we are outsourcing those to other parts of the planet. If you want to be in the US and you want to thrive, you better have a good healthy right hemisphere to go with that left hemisphere of your brain. There is a great book by Daniel Pink, A Whole New Mind, all about that.
So since thoughts control our emotions, taming our thoughts can impact our emotional health?
Oh absolutely. I think a thought that makes me angry. It stimulates my emotional circuit for anger. I have a physiological response as a result of that emotional circuitry. If I keep thinking those angry thoughts, I keep stimulating that circuitry. I mean you can practice this. Next time you get mad ask yourself what am I mad about, and you will remind yourself of what thought you had, and you get mad! Well, stop thinking the thought! Unless you want to feel that. If you don't want to get madder and madder, quit thinking the thought. You have a choice.
How did you become a singing scientist?
There was a shortage of brains being donated for research. So I started going out and talking to people and audiences, and they'd realize oh my gosh she wants my brain, and they'd start freaking out, and they'd all look down, like the first-grade don't-call-on-me syndrome. I am a Hoosier Indiana girl, which means I'm very friendly, and I was thinking I'm traumatizing my audiences, but it's so important, I had to do it, so I decided well I am going to make this fun. So I wrote the brain bank jingle, started traveling with a guitar, and when I started talking about brain donations and I felt the tension, I pull out the guitar, start singing and they laugh, and that makes everything okay and I can communicate my message, so it was out of necessity.
What kinds of brains for research?
There's a shortage of brain tissue of the mentally ill and anyone's psychiatrically diagnosed or their families, as well as normal control people. So we need that tissue and I say don't worry, we are in no hurry.
And you did this work prior to your stroke?
And did you find after the stroke that your voice changed?
I got better. Or I became more secure.
How can human beings strengthen and rejuvenate their neural circuits to improve their sense of inner joy and innocence without having to experience a brain hemorrhage?
Bring your mind to the present moment. Be willing to really commit yourself to the present moment and the beauty of being in the present moment. Celebrate your life, celebrate and find gratitude. What are you grateful for in your life? Tell yourself repeatedly what you are grateful for; allow that to really penetrate your consciousness. To me that's the biggest.
At the root, at the heart, to me, of the right hemisphere experience of Nirvana is celebration and gratitude. What is Nirvana? What would anyone expect to feel if they were in Nirvana? They would experience bliss. What is bliss? Bliss to me is a celebration of me and all that is. And to think that I have a consciousness that is capable of having that experience to me is wow! I'm not beyond this; I am here having that circuitry run. So I think it's a choice.
How much of your time now is spent educating people about this?
I am one hundred percent committed to helping humanity find its way back to its joy and gratitude. It is one hundred percent of who I am, it is what I am. I came so close to death and this is what I call gravy time. You can have a great turkey dinner and it's great, but you throw gravy on it and it's like the ultimate experience. This is gravy time for me. I didn't die that morning, I survived and I have had 12 years that I almost didn't have, so I might be gone in 30 seconds. That might be the end of the time that I do have here. I'm so grateful for the time I do have here. I am totally committed to using the time that I have to celebrate the gift of life, the gift of what we all have. At the essence of what we are. I see myself as an advocate for humanity. I even wrote a song, "Advocate for Humanity."
I've been a little busy since that TED talk in Monterey. It was perfect timing, it was the perfect time, the book was written, the book was ready, I was ready, I was a seasoned presenter, I was back to teaching neuroscience, I was doing everything, I was at the top of my game again when that TED talk hit the internet, it exploded me into the public eye and it's just been a phenomenal ride. To think that I can go from that level of illness, disconnection, and being just so far detached from any perception of reality that could be shared to this level of celebrity and popularity. Never give up, people should never give up, you never know what your life is going to hold for you.
Were you challenged in avoiding giving renewed life to your old circuits and negative personality traits in the process of recovering your left mind's ego and if so how did you overcome that?
I did, I was very challenged because it all wanted to come back online, the person who I had been before, her attributes cognitively in the left hemisphere wanted to come back online and part of that was part of her personality and I'm nicer than she was (laughs). I didn't want that. I had to do therapy essentially with her. Why are you so angry? What is that about? That's when I realized it's about circuitry, everything that I've learned about my brain and how to get my brain to do what it wants to do or what I want it to do is based on my personal experience with that circuitry, so certain circuits wanted to come back online and I really was invested in not giving them voice again, because I didn't want that mean little voice to dominate, I didn't want my anger circuit to dominate, I didn't want those characteristics that were represented by that circuitry to dominate who I am again. I had to do therapy and figure out that it really was just circuitry and that things in the external world might trigger circuitry but I didn't have to run that. It was through that process of reinventing who I am going to be during the course of years as the circuits came back online.
What projects do you have in the works to further your mission?
I'm working on another project that I think is going to have a phenomenal impact on helping people neurologically rehabilitate themselves more quickly and it will involve virtual reality and biofeedback and gaming; it's a neurological device. I think it will take all the pieces of rehabilitation and help people to rehabilitate themselves more quickly because it will be from the inside out instead of rehabilitation from the outside in.
I believe you've become a frontline player in the paradigm shift.
One hundred percent. The paradigm shift has to happen soon, and it happens one brain at a time. A lot of people didn't get the paradigm shift before because it uses a language that they're not comfortable with. There's this blend now between western scientific communication and language of an experience that we are one people, we are family, we are connected, and putting that inside of a brain so a whole new population is getting it because of the language, it's because of the language.
I'm thrilled to be part of the team that is helping create this bridge between science and spirituality. We are one human. We have two hemispheres. They process things very differently. We are circuitry. We have the rational linear thinking language half, and we have the more holistic, present-moment, bigger picture kind of thinking and they are all right there in the same brain and a lot more people are finding that they can handle my language.
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