Enlightenment is a Right–Brain Phenomenon?

Sunni's picture

I will address the gross oversimplification of that statement, after interested readers follow me to the viewing room for a fascinating presentation.

As with so many other things, I’m behind the curve on TED talks; thus, many of you may already be familiar with Jill Bolte Taylor’s story. She’s a neuroanatomist who had a massive stroke; she’s written a book about her experiences, which I intend to read someday soon. Meantime, this TED presentation offers plenty of thought–provoking ideas:



(Direct link to vid on YouTube)

The idea that immediately grabbed my attention and wouldn’t relinquish its grip is that her description of “lala land” sounds very much like what many seek via meditation—enlightenment. Is enlightenment, then, simply a process of shutting down the discursive, language–driven areas of one’s brain? Some scientists and even others might agree with that statement, but I’m not so sure.

I think that, like so many other concepts, right–brain and left–brain have become overly simplified, and dichotomized (and Taylor herself perpetuates this view to some degree in her opening remarks). If it were that straightforward, surely others among the numerous stroke survivors each year would have reported a similar experience long before now. Of course, it is possible that others have had such experiences, but didn’t understand them and/or feared communicating what had happened to them. The right– and left–brain dualism may be a useful metaphor still, but it is at best just that: like so many others (the computer metaphor Taylor also mentions springs immediately to mind), it is a simplistic portrayal of very complex things.

The question that followed hot on the heels of that observation was this: Doesn’t this suggest that discursive thought and language have been both the boon and bane of civilization?

It's an overused quote

but it applies.

"The psychotic drowns in the same waters in which the mystic swims with delight."
—Joseph Campbell

It's all about the connections and bridges.

Long story short, just because you woke up in Cleveland doesn't mean that all roads lead there. Or that you know the airline schedule.

Boon or bane

I think the right and left brain dichotomy needs to be simplistically portrayed because it IS so complex. Having already heard the complex version (in nursing school), I found her simpler version a lot easier to digest — but admittedly, I knew what she was talking about in advance. It’s those who haven’t heard, or those who don’t understand, the complex version who most benefit from the simpler explanation.

“Is enlightenment, then, simply a process of shutting down the discursive, language–driven areas of one’s brain? Some scientists and even others might agree with that statement, but I’m not so sure.”

I don’t think so. Shutting down specific areas of the brain leaves one in a “negative balance,” so to speak, whereas “enlightenment” (a different mechanism involved) brings a more positive understanding of what one is trying to reach, and possibly inspires one to move forward.

“The question that followed hot on the heels of that observation was this: Doesn’t this suggest that discursive thought and language have been both the boon and bane of civilization?”

Yes. Well, a boon in bringing about civilization, but perhaps “civilization” itself is a bane to earth and its natural evolution.

I was recently re-reading “White Fang” and discovered this observation I had completely missed earlier:
“He [White Fang as a cub] was realizing his own meaning in the world; he was doing that for which he was made——killing meat and battling to kill it. He was justifying his existence, than which life can do no greater: *for life achieves its summit when it does to the uttermost that which it was equipped to do.”* [My emphasis]

Questions arose: What were humans originally equipped to do? Do we know that answer?

If discursive thought and language have helped short-circuit evolution in the short time we’ve been on earth (and I don’t know that it has, I only suspect that it has), then what we have become may have deviated considerably from what homo sapiens was “equipped to do.”

What else are humans currently equipped to do *except* build (and destroy!) civilizations?

Much to ponder

Thanks, both of you, for sharing your observations. Pat, your comments regarding the “negative balance” of a stroke or other brain injury are spot on, and something I completely overlooked. That makes Taylor’s experience all the more remarkable to me.

... [A] boon in bringing about civilization, but perhaps “civilization” itself is a bane to earth and its natural evolution.

Yes—and not only in the ways environmentalists decry. But these are challenging ideas to consider, in part because of the difficulties inherent in words like natural, evolution, and equipped. Moreover, many people would probably object to such lines of thinking reflexively, thinking that they necessarily take a dim view of humanity.

Perhaps it’s the romantic in me being channeled through the discordian, but I can view our evolutionary history as a freaky twist that may not endure, yet love the best that I have seen or learned of from our species over the millennia. Life is change and we, too, individually and as a species, are ever changing.

Brain vs Will

“That makes Taylor’s experience all the more remarkable to me.”

I agree. It was sheer will power that kept her going and aware during the stroke.

As, apparently, it was during Bret Michael’s (“Poison”) brain hemorrhage. As I understand it, he didn’t want his family to find him unconscious, so he “willed” himself to stay conscious and get help.

Obviously these episodes were not sudden earthquakes (more like a hurricane build-up) — I don’t believe either of them could have remained functioning if the episodes were massive *at the outset.* But they both had an awareness of “self” and their bodies, and a strong will to keep control of their faculties. Interesting that they could override their _brain_ failure with _mental_ control; that may tell us something about how the two function together — and may help explain “will power.”

“,...but I can view our evolutionary history as a freaky twist that may not endure, yet love the best that I have seen or learned of from our species over the millennia. Life is change and we, too, individually and as a species, are ever changing.”

Thanks. That’s what I was trying to say.

Über Metacognitivity it is

Interesting that they could override their _brain_ failure with _mental_ control; that may tell us something about how the two function together — and may help explain “will power.”

Very interesting indeed, Pat. Thanks for that information about Brett, too; I was so saddened to hear about him that I couldn't read more than the headlines (I’m a big Poison fan). It’s also amazing that, after his fast–living years, his brain has been able to recover as much as it has already, and pretty quickly, too.

Amazing indeed.

I've cared for a great number of stroke and brain injured people over the years. Many who seemed to have little or no hope of recovery - due to the severity of the injury or concurrent health problems - have healed remarkably. Others, who had relatively minor injury, have lingered and even deteriorated. Some even died unexpectedly.

The factors that seemed most vital in every case was their attitude, will to survive, and support from family and friends. The less they had of any of those, the less likely they were to recover fully- regardless of the severity of their initial problem.

And, of course, that is just as true for any other disease process. The body, mind and spirit are all threads in the same cloth. They are the three dimensions of life. I don't believe they can be successfully isolated in reality.

who is the "me" that is asking?

"...her description of “lala land” sounds very much like what many seek via meditation—enlightenment. Is enlightenment, then, simply a process of shutting down the discursive, language–driven areas of one’s brain? Some scientists and even others might agree with that statement, but I’m not so sure."

to me, if that is enlightenment, a bat to the head should do it! drugs too for that matter. the mountaintop is a great thing to experience and the feeling of euphoria, peace, tranquility, etc are all very appealing--and the natural response is to want it all the time.

from my own search i'm in a place whre the seeker in me is dead (not to be confused with the experiencer). as that is my wiring, i'll always be open to experience, new knowledge and new understanding. but i've come to a point where being present to the moment is the closest thing to nirvana i've found. to me, the search for enlightenment is a chimera. i guess it depends on what a person means by enlightenment as well. if it's a search for something lacking in ones life, then they can fall prey to the newest path to enlightenment fad to come along. i'd tend to think that enlightenment is fairly permanent--something where you come to some peace or understanding that surpasses the need to keep searching. i realize that last sentence is a can of worms as dogma fits that description. maybe i should add that when the question ceases to rear its head, along with a peace that transcends the highs and lows of life...(again, i hate the word enlightenment!). it can only be pointed to, in my opinion. as soon as you try to describe it, the limitations of language start to cloud the concept. anyhow, in my experience i've come to an understanding that time doesn't exist outside our use of it to schedule things. with that, the past doesn't exist any longer as it is only a memory in our brains. the future doesn't exist as it is only unfleshed-out imaginations. our linear thinking/wiring creates the illusion of time but what does time mean when you step off the curb and the bus hits you?

"The psychotic drowns in the same waters in which the mystic swims with delight."
—Joseph Campbell

love that quote!

my take on our existence is this. i don't pretend to have any answers, i'm open and willing to be proven wrong at any moment. the answer for me is, "what was it like before i was born?" personally i don't pretend to know. i'm wired to ask the question of death but really, i'm pretty sure it will be like before April xx, 1966. this body just doesn't have the awareness or understanding to figure it out at this time. and i don't want to spend any more time on a question that has puzzled folks for forever. that bus thing keeps me present and the peace i feel in that, really does surpass all my current understanding.

caveat: definitely more to this (and upon a re-read see it a little disjointed--oh well), especially in terms of ego & killing that too--including the collective ego that leads to things like "the state", war, etc...

Maybe it’s the Buddha within

i'd tend to think that enlightenment is fairly permanent--something where you come to some peace or understanding that surpasses the need to keep searching.

My rather limited understanding is that the original Buddha asserted that; and moreover, asserted that it is always within each of us.

anyhow, in my experience i've come to an understanding that time doesn't exist outside our use of it to schedule things.

Some real academics have said this, too. It’s a highly intriguing idea to me but I’m not quite ready to fully embrace it just yet. How can one observe or document change without reference to the series of present moments—now past—that went by during which change occurred?

definitely more to this (and upon a re-read see it a little disjointed--oh well), especially in terms of ego & killing that too--including the collective ego that leads to things like "the state", war, etc...

One of my sensei speaks of “metabolizing” the ego, which resonates with me pretty deeply. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I’d never thought of the collective ego at work in many group dynamics.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, galacticmonk ... always good to see you around here.