Monday, September 21, 2009

A Stroke of Insight

Jill Bolte Taylor, My Stroke of Insight (London: Penguin Books, 2006)

Dr Jill Taylor is a neuroanatomist affiliated with the Midwest Proton Radiotherapy Institute in Bloomington, Indiana. On 10 December 1996, Jill (37 years old) developed a stroke due to a rupture in an AV malformation (blood vessel) in her brain. Aside from the brain damage due to hypoxia (due to lack of oxygen because of reduced blood flow), she also had a blood clot which need neurosurgical removal a few months later. Being a Harvard trained scientist, Jill was able to clinically observe her stoke-in-evolution. This is the account of her observations where she was only able to perceive the world through her right hemisphere(brain) for the period before her operation and the gradually retraining of her left brain after the operation.

She noted that she experienced profound peace and interconnectness with all creation when she was using only her right brain. She liken this sense of peace to a religious experience or experiencing Nirvana. The left brain is associated with rational thinking and brain chatter. When she was rediscovering the use of her left brain, she discovered that she does have a choice to response positively or negatively to any situation. This is her 'stroke of insight.' The default preprograming was apparently to respond negatively to any situation with anxiety, worry and unhappiness.

There are some interesting aspects of her account. Is it possible that the right brain, being more intuitive are more sensitive to the transcendent and imminent God? Is the development of the spiritual life a development of the interconnectiveness through our right brain?

Her account of her insight on the left brain also rises some interesting questions. Is our spiritual development a reprogramming of the neuropathways of the left brain by perception, spiritual disciplines and choice? Is that what St.Paul meant when he wrote, "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things" (Phil.4:8)?

I find this fascinating especially in the study of physiology of religious experiences. Maybe I should name this 'neurotheology' !

More about Dr Jill Taylor here

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Anonymous Matthew R Green said...

Heard her talking on NPR a while ago. Interesting experience, and I appreciate your questions. Worth pondering, though is there a way of actually answering them? When you start linking biology and spirituality this intricately, you almost begin to require the use of the scientific method on that which cannot be observed, which doesn't work.

9:47 AM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

Hi Matthew,

What does NPR stands for? Personally I believe in the scientific method. I do recognised its limitations when applied only to the material universe. As a medical scientist and a Christian, I have spent a lot of time in the study of the convergence of science and Christianity spiritualities. And I do not think they are mutually exclusive.

My present area of research is in understanding the process of spiritual formation. As you are aware, much of the recent literature on spiritual formation is based on psychological and social sciences. A recent book by Newberg and D'Aquli (Why God Won't go Away, NY: Ballantine 2001) describe how they place some Tibetan meditators and Franciscan nuns (praying or meditating) in a SPECT machine and are able to pinpoint a certain area of the brain that is active during these activities. I find all these very fascinating.

11:26 AM  
Anonymous Matthew R Green said...

NPR is National Public Radio

I'll agree that the scientific method is generally an accurate means of divining truth about the material world. My issue is that the application of the scientific method requires observation and measurement, something that is not possible with the spiritual. Therefore, we sort of bump into a roadblock.

4:19 AM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

Hi Matthew,

Thanks for explaining NPR. I don't think the area of measurement is as great a roadblock as we think. Social sciences and pyschological science has been measuring the intangibles for decades. It is only a matter of selecting the right tool for the job.

Saying that, I still think that there is very much work to do, both in science and in theology before we can understand the mysteries of God.

11:41 AM  

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