Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Day After Christmas

I have just read an interesting book, My Stroke of Insight, written by Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D. Dr. Taylor is a neuroanatomist who specializes in the postmortem investigation of the human brain. (Some people are turned on by the strangest things.)
On December 10, 1996, Dr. Taylor suffered a stroke caused by sudden bleeding from a birth defect in the left hemisphere of her brain.. As soon as she realized what was happening, she concentrated on trying to remember her thoughts and feelings. The book is a record of her impressions, beginning with the incidence of the stroke, and ending with the return of all her faculties eight years later. As a result of her experiences, Dr. Taylor also presents recommendations for stroke victims and their care givers.
The human brain has two hemispheres – it is as if we have two brains, each with different functions and personalities. Normally they work together in processing incoming data, creating a seamless view of the world.
But each hemisphere processes information in different ways. For the right brain, which controls the left half of the body, no time exists other than the present moment. As millions of bits of data stream into our brains at each instant, the right brain ties together sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feelings – tactile, emotional and intuitional – into one overall mosaic. This mosaic has no connection with either the previous moment, or the next. It is complete in itself.
Picture the cels which the Disney Company uses to represent one step in an animated cartoon. Each one contains a complete picture, and has no connection with either the preceding cel or the next one.
It is because of the ability of the right brain that we can remember very clearly certain outstanding events in our lives. Almost everyone remembers the moment they heard that Kennedy was shot, and older individuals can tell exactly what they were doing when they heard that Pearl Harbor had been attacked.
The process of combining the incoming data with the past and the future is the responsibility of the left  brain. This is the reasoning area – it contains the ability to create speech, to understand speech, to understand the physical boundaries of time and space, to move and to sense the world. It is the area that continually talks to us and orients us in the world. It enables us to calculate the odds of success between alternate courses of action.
This is also the area that Dr. Taylor lost. In her words, “The harder I tried to concentrate, the  more fleeting my ideas seemed to be. Instead of finding answers and information, I met a growing sense of peace. In place of that constant chatter that had attached me to the details of my life, I felt enfolded by a blanket of tranquil euphoria…As the language centers in my left hemisphere grew increasingly silent and I became detached from the memories of my life, I was comforted by an expanding sense of grace In this void of higher cognition and details pertaining to my normal life, my consciousness soared into and all-knowingness, a ‘being at one’ with the universe, if you will…I’m no authority, but I think the Buddhists would say I entered the mode of existence they call Nirvana.”
It’s certainly possible that Nirvana, or any religious awakening or conversion,  can be attained by learning to “turn off” the chatter of the left hemisphere. William James’ book: The Varieties of Religious Experience is all about such sudden and often unexpected occasions of ”being at one” with the universe. But whether or not Dr. Taylor attained Nirvana, she certainly shattered any doubt that one’s relationship to the world can be dramatically altered by a change in the physiology of the brain.
At this point I wish to make two assumptions about the nervous system:

1.)    A change in the internal state of the brain affects the body.
2.)    The brain is part of a determined system, i.e. conditions affecting the body have a corresponding effect upon the state of the brain.

Dr. Taylor has provided adequate proof of the first assumption, and the effects of alcohol, drugs, sensory deprivation, even hunger upon the brain are well documented, and lead to the second assumption.
Which brings me to Ebenezer Scrooge. Could he have been correct when he said to the ghost, “You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato?” Could something like that have so affected his brain that it led to his complete personality change on Christmas morning? Was the change permanent? I know it’s only a story, but think about it.
Thought for Today: "I never could see why people were so happy about Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol' because I never had any confidence that Scrooge was going to be different the next day." — Dr. Karl Menninger, American psychiatrist (1893-1990).

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