The Naked Eye

Mark Matousek's Blog

Thursday, July 24, 2008


I was on the phone with Jill Bolte Taylor (author of “My Stroke of Insight”) last week talking about why she thinks the hokey pokey is one sure pathway to bliss.“The hokey pokey?” I asked.“You know, right foot in, right foot out and shake it all about!” the neuroanatomist said with a giggle. “That’s what it’s all about!”Let me back track. Bolte Taylor and I were supposed to be having a serious conversation (for a very serious magazine) about the post-stroke epiphany that’s made her very famous (2 million have watched her TED Conference video on YouTube, reportedly) and caused Time Magazine to name her one of its most 100 Most Influential People for 2008.Her epiphany, as most everyone knows by now, came in the midst of a massive left brain hemorrhage in 1996. With the left side of her brain swamped -- the hemisphere that provides us with logic, language, and abstract concepts – Jill watched over the course of a few hours as she became unable to walk, talk, read, write, or recall the events of her own life. The freaky thing was how euphoric she felt – nirvana is the word she uses – equipped with only her oceanic right brain. The incessant, analytical chatter of her left mind was silenced, leaving her in a state of bliss.“Like a genie liberated from a bottle…My consciousness soared into an all-knowingness, a being at one with the universe,” she wrote. Life was beautiful when the right brain (where spontaneity, connection, sensuality come from) was running the show. Even after surgeons took a golf ball-sized clot out of her head, and Jill spent eight grueling years of rehab regaining the other side of her mind, she’s still able to tune into nirvana channel at will.“Lucky you,” I say. She became such a culture hero, in fact, for being the first brain scientist to experience such a stroke and and letting a controversial secret out of the closet; namely, that we all have a swami inside our (right) heads, an already-blissful, entirely connected, joy-filled and non-judging half of ourselves just waiting for our stressed out other half to stop all the racket a cryin’ second and let us be in peace!“Where do we start?” I ask.“You’ve gotta recognize when you are in your right hemisphere – and when you’re not,” Jill tells me. So far, so good. “I’m very peaceful at the moment, sitting on my porch with my dog. The light is beautiful.”I picture her lengthy white tresses blowing in the Bloomington breeze.“When you’re really paying attention to the present moment, its richness,” she says, “that’s right-minded awareness. The left hemisphere is preoccupied with past and future, projecting fears, contemplating ideas and theories that aren’t relevant to the here and now. Once you realize you have these two different brains, you can learn to choose robustly, moment by moment, how you want to live.”Robustly? I love that.“Of course, you do need the push as well as the pause to function properly,” says Jill. “The left hemisphere is our tool to push. The right brain is our tool to pause. Without that balance, the machine either pushes, pushes, pushes and wears itself out -- or all you have is the pause and there is no productivity.”“You’re telling me.”“The beauty is we’re designed for both. The difference for me is that I’m now able to identify clearly when I’m in push or pause. I may prefer the pause because it feels better. I'm more joyful, more cooperative, happier. People like me better. I can use the tools of the left hemisphere to push into the world, but as soon as it becomes stressful I can feel that in my body and switch to pause. We can all do this. But the first step is paying attention to how it feels to be inside of our own skins. In this moment? Are you breathing deeply? Are you feeling calm and relaxed? Are you paying attention to the colors or the birds in your native environment? Or are you feeling tension? Anger? Sadness? What thoughts are you thinking that are stimulating those feelings inside your body?”It amazed me to learn from “My Stroke of Insight” that thoughts only last for 90 seconds in the body.“From the moment you think a thought, which stimulates a cognitive loop, which triggers physiology inside of your blood stream (as all thoughts do), surges through your body and then flushes completely out of your bloodstream, it's less than 90 seconds,” this smarty pants tells me. But we keep going back to the same old thoughts.”“We’re on a mouse wheel.”“The more you run a circuit, the easier that thought-loop becomes,” she agrees. “The less energy you have to put into that circuit for that circuit to run. When you recognize your wiring, this can change. You can say, ‘Oh, there's a brain in there. It's organized like a fuse box. That makes sense to me. If I pull this plug on this circuit I don't have to think those thoughts anymore. I have choices.’”The choices she suggests don’t sound too hard. “Use your sensory system to pay closer attention to your environment. What does the air smell like? What are the sounds? The colors? What’s happening in the distance?” she asks. “Pay attention to the bigger picture – the larger context of where you’re at. Take a walk outside. Don't focus on any of the details – that’s the left-brain’s job -- just let the whole picture come at you. It shifts you back to the here and now.”“What else?”“You can use your motor system. Turn off the music inside of your head and start jiggling your body.“What do you mean by jiggling?” I wonder. This is starting to sound…unpicturesque.She lets out a great big Midwesterner’s laugh. “I can guarantee you that you will feel different after three minutes of jiggling your body than you felt before. Wiggle your head, wiggle your shoulders. It’s pumping the nervous system, encouraging the cerebral spinal fluid to be moving around.”“That sounds, um, weird.”“Also, you’ve interrupted your thought loops for three minutes,” she ignores me. “They're not as powerful as they used to be. You now have another choice. Or try dancing! I was talking to somebody about this recently, moving our bodies and so on. We suddenly realized that we were talking about is doing the hokey pokey.”“The hokey pokey?”“You know, put your right foot in, put your right foot out, and shake it all about. You do the hokey pokey and you turn yourself around. That’s what it’s all about!”“You’re scaring me,” I say.“Just try it,” she says.“I’ll keep you posted.”“You do that,” says Jill.Then we hang up the phone and my office looks brighter.