BELIEFS AND BRAINS
Book reviews by Michael Isshin Spiller
My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey (Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D.)
Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife (Eben Alexander, M.D.)
Those of us who spend a lot of time at the Hazy Moon regularly hear Nyogen Roshi ask “Do you really believe …?” followed by any number of phrases: “that there is such a thing as enlightenment?”; “that you are a Buddha?” (a fully enlightened being in the process of realizing itself); “that it is possible to literally transcend birth and death?”; “that you are the universe unfolding?”
Is it possible for me to believe something I haven’t experienced? It would be helpful if we had two different words to distinguish between two distinct states of mind: I believe that I will make it to the supermarket and back because I’ve done it many times before. But do I believe that I am fundamentally the enlightened mind? Do I really believe that there is something akin to a soul, an afterlife? How can I? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that I would like to believe?
A few years ago, two authorities on the physiology and function of the brain, both hardcore biological materialists – Jill Bolte Taylor, a professor of neuroanatomy, and Eben Alexander, teacher at various distinguished medical schools, as well as neurosurgeon of many years – had some of their beliefs challenged in a big way. Each underwent devastating trauma to the organ they had devoted their lives to studying: Bolte Taylor had a massive hemorrhage in the left hemisphere of her brain. Alexander suffered a rare form of spontaneous bacterial meningitis that usually leaves its victims either dead or in a permanent vegetative state. That he survived at all, not to mention regained full functionality, is, to many knowledgeable observers, nothing short of a miracle. Both Bolte Taylor and Alexander were changed forever by their experiences.
Bolte Taylor awoke one December morning in 1996 to find that she was to become, in the space of four hours, unable to walk, talk, read, write or recall anything about her life. With her intimate knowledge of neurophysiology she recognized that she was having a stroke in the left side of her brain. She witnessed and interpreted correctly the rapid decline of left-brain function, along with the emerging dominance of the right, which she experienced as egoless, loving, timeless unity. She had enough presence of mind to know (1) not to panic and (2) that she needed to get help fast if she was to have any hope of recovery.
She had excellent medical care, the full support of her family and friends, and enough left-brain function remaining to know that the road ahead was going to be a long, hard slog. She spent eight years becoming intimate with what she came to think of as her better half, the right brain, with its emphasis on sensitivity, empathy, patience and appreciation for a slower pace of life. When her recovery was complete, she reflected on her experience and came to see it as a valuable life lesson: She says that she is now able to choose between the activity of the two sides of the brain when one or the other is more appropriate for the task at hand. She has come to appreciate that the speedy, analytical, egocentric left-hemisphere dominance is a kind of modern disease that needs to be countered by the much more gentle and compassionate activity of its companion across the bridge between the two, the corpus callosum. What transformed her was the realization that she truly had a choice between (1) continuing down the narrow path of her past habits of thinking, feeling and treating others and (2) opening into the present moment with its endless possibilities.
Twelve years later, Eben Alexander underwent an even more life-threatening trauma when he awoke with severe back pain and headache followed on shortly by a grand mal seizure – the result of a mysterious E. coli infection of the neocortex. He spent seven days in a coma in the ICU, with loved ones and medical colleagues watching over him closely. As the week wore on with no improvement, his doctors tried to prepare his family for what they felt was the inevitable: if not death, then certainly a greatly diminished existence. Alexander shocked everyone by awakening suddenly on the 7th day; within minutes he regained sight, hearing and language skills. What also returned very soon was his memory of where he had been and what had happened to him while he lay in a coma: He had been transported in his consciousness to another world. He describes this journey in detail in the book, from his initial descent into a crude, murky environment with no memory of language, self or knowledge of any kind, through his ascent in the company of a loving spirit guide into an indescribably beautiful realm of divine presence where he met spiritual beings and learned profound lessons that could not be communicated in words. His return to a normal existence with these memories intact transformed him and his view of life, death, and all manner of human interaction.
In the three years afterwards he made an arduous effort to account for his experience from a neuroscientist’s knowledge and perspective, and just couldn’t come up with a reasonable explanation. He says repeatedly both in his book and in interviews that his visual, auditory, tactile and mental impressions were intensely vivid and hyper-real during this time, but that the very part of the brain that is responsible for registering that kind of experience – the neocortex – was completely out of commission. And his examination of the available literature on near-death experience convinced him that his own encounter with a deeper level of consciousness went far beyond what most people have described. He writes: “The further I dug, the more convinced I became that my discovery wasn’t just interesting or dramatic. It was scientific.”
In her book Bolte Taylor makes no claims that challenge current theory in neuroscience. Not so with Alexander: He believes his experience demonstrates that consciousness has a source beyond the physical brain, and he states openly that he is on a mission to spread the word. He is particularly interested in getting the scientific community on board. He knows that he has a very tough battle ahead, and he has been mightily challenged. The most detailed attack I have found comes from Sam Harris (http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/this-must-be-heaven), well-known philosopher, author, blogger and atheist, who in the last decade acquired a doctorate in cognitive neuroscience. I find fascinating my own response to this back-and-forth between the voice of received scientific opinion – Harris – and Alexander’s challenge to that view: Both make their respective points convincingly. What is remarkable is that four years ago, before his medical crisis, Alexander would have had no disagreement with Harris. Since I have no knowledge of neuroscience and no personal spiritual experience to speak of, I have no dog in this fight. That said, certainly Eben Alexander’s vision is more inspiring and appealing than Sam Harris’s.
What is most compelling to me is that Alexander had an experience that profoundly transformed him, and it was clearly a manifestation, at least in part, of his unique perspective on consciousness. I don’t think he would dispute that. He describes himself as having been a cultural Christian with no faith to speak of, though he says he envied people who had it. Throughout the account he uses words like “Om” and “God” and “our loving Creator” interchangeably to describe what he feels was the presence of what he calls the “divine.” The title itself – “Proof of Heaven” – is controversial; we don’t know whether the choice was his, or his publisher’s, but it can be argued that the word “heaven” more than likely refers to the state of being he experienced, rather than to a specific locale defined by an organized religion.
Do I really believe that Jill Bolte Taylor truly chooses continuously to live with the lessons of her right brain? She makes a very credible case for it in her book. When I watch her tell the story live at the TED talk she gave in 2008 [http://www.ted.com/talks/jill_bolte_taylor_s_powerful_stroke_of_insight.html], I can see that she is still deeply moved by her experience, some twelve years later.
Do I believe Eben Alexander’s story? He is a distinguished brain scientist who went through an experience that he himself says strains credulity, to put it mildly. He tells his story very convincingly in his own beautiful book, and in a radio interview [http://www.skeptiko.com/eben-alexander-the-medical-mystery-of-near-death-experience/] he gave to Alex Tsakiris of skeptiko.com before the book was finished.
Do I truly believe that I have the capacity to have my own genuine transformation? As long as I am alive, I will have the opportunity to find out. In the interim I have these two very compelling accounts I can return to for inspiration.