Time: Lessons From a Dying Brain

The starship engine spins in winged centrifuge. The growing list of tasks in the mission multiplies its rotational speed and efficiency as the system expands tirelessly to accommodate demands.

That is my brain. THiS is HIS:

A white hum. The wheels dance easily between movement and stillness. Any information that streams in faster than homeostasis approves activates the self-preservation mechanism. EJECT. EJECT. The data overload leaks through a sleek aperture, which physiology translates into IN ONE EAR, OUT THE OTHER.

My husband’s brain is a fascinating piece of machinery. It refuses strain. Barring any unforeseen tragedy, he will likely outlive me because he lets go of the past easily, does not fret over the future, and functions in a simple, elegant neurological circuitry that permits only one claim upon his attention at any given time. Trying to be less of me, I find myself asking, What exactly does it mean to be “in the moment”?

human_brainNeuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor experienced a life-changing stroke of insight that left her unable to speak, write, read, or recall her past:

Our right human hemisphere is all about “right here, right now.” It thinks in pictures and learns through the movement of our bodies. Information, in the form of energy, streams in simultaneously through all of our sensory systems and then it explodes into this enormous collage of what this present moment looks…smells, tastes, feels, sounds like. I am an energy-being connected to the energy all around me through the consciousness of my right hemisphere.

Our left hemisphere is a very different place. Our left hemisphere is all about the past…and the future. Our left hemisphere is designed to take that enormous collage of the present moment and start picking out details, and more details about those details. It then categorizes and organizes all that information, associates it with everything in the past we’ve ever learned, and projects into the future all of our possibilities. And our left hemisphere thinks in language. It’s that ongoing brain chatter that connects me and my internal world to my external world. It’s that calculating intelligence that reminds me when I have to do my laundry. But perhaps most important, it’s that little voice that says to me, “I am. I am.” And as soon as my left hemisphere says to me “I am.” I become a single solid individual, separate from the energy flow around me and separate from you. And this was the portion of my brain that I lost on the morning of my stroke.

…And…my left hemisphere brain chatter went totally silent. Just like someone took a remote control and pushed the mute button. At first I was shocked to find myself inside of a silent mind. But then I was immediately captivated by the magnificence of the energy around me. And because I could no longer identify the boundaries of my body, I felt enormous and expansive. I felt at one with all the energy that was, and it was beautiful there. So here I am in this space, and my job, and any stress related to my job — it was gone. I felt lighter in my body…imagine what it would feel like to lose 37 years of emotional baggage! Oh! I felt euphoria. And again, my left hemisphere comes online and it says, “Hey! You’ve got to pay attention. We’ve got to get help.” And I’m thinking, “I’ve got to focus.”

When I woke later that afternoon, I was shocked to discover that I was still alive. When I felt my spirit surrender, I said goodbye to my life. Stimulation coming in through my sensory systems felt like pure pain. Light burned my brain like wildfire. And my spirit soared free. I found Nirvana. But then I realized, “I’m still alive! And if I have found Nirvana and I’m still alive, then everyone who is alive can find Nirvana.” And they could purposely choose to step to the right of their hemispheres — and find this peace. And then I realized what a tremendous gift this experience could be, what a stroke of insight this could be to how we live our lives. And it motivated me to recover.

So who are we? We have the power to choose, moment by moment, who and how we want to be in the world. Right now, I can step into the consciousness of my right hemisphere, where we are. I am the life-force power of the universe. Or, I can choose to step into the consciousness of my left hemisphere, where I become a single individual, a solid. Separate from the flow, separate from you. I am Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor: intellectual, neuroanatomist. These are the “we” inside of me. Which would you choose? Which do you choose? And when? I believe that the more time we spend choosing to run the deep inner-peace circuitry of our right hemispheres, the more peace we will project.

That’s wild. I can’t imagine my inner radio going silent, taking my words with it. As for the life application she draws, I don’t know. We need both hemispheres tending to the moment. In the conversation she had with herself as her consciousness wove in and out, Bolte (that is, her left brain) kept urging herself to pay attention. And mindfulness is very much paying attention, isn’t it? I understand the power of sensory presence was such a new experience for her that it felt as though she were inhabiting reality more fully than she ever had with her linguistic and analytic brain. But I think cognition, comprehension, and the ability to name our experience complete awareness.

In the film Still Alice, we see Columbia linguistics professor Howland losing more than her memory to Alzheimer’s. Our history is part of our emotional, spiritual, and even physical anatomy. The past with its challenges, trauma and joys have forged who we are and given us the ability to meet the moment with knowing, with intelligence, strength, hope, gratitude and our bag of dysfunctions. If your past crumbles to ashes, you lose your autobiography, and can’t fill the new page. An illness or accident robs you of your past and hollows out your present. You forget why you came into the kitchen and lose the intention, and therefore meaning, of the moment. Psychologist and professor Dan Gilbert seems to make sense of this:



If you ask most people what’s real, the present, the past or the future? They say the present. Actually, they’re wrong. The past and the future are both real. The present is a psychological illusion. The present is just the wall between yesterday and today. You know, if you go to the beach, you see water and you see sand, and it looks like there’s a line between them, but that line is not a third thing. There’s only water, and there’s only sand. Similarly, all moments in time are either in the past or in the future…which is to say the present doesn’t exist.

As he says, most of us feel that the present is hard ground. But for the steadfast hands of the clock and the turn of seasons, we don’t experience time as an unending sea of movement that unseats the present from its place. And naturally, for we apprehend the material world with our senses and what we see and touch is obviously real. So what does this mean? How do I stay grounded in the shifting sand of time? Well, this moment is ephemeral but not elusive. And I’ve found that perspective makes all the difference in the way I relate to it. When I perceive time as a scarce commodity, the Bargain I have to fish out from the daunting Clearance pile, I approach the table with a measure of angst. Put the chicken in the oven, run his Spelling audio, check his math, email her about this week’s get-together, change the windows appointment, be sure to review Geography. I won’t get to write today! But when I trust that I’m not the one creature out of the eight billion on the planet who needs 28 hours in her day, I can let go the frustration that the sun sets too soon on the day’s hopes. I’ve been given the hours to do what I need to (bonus thought: to do what gives me joy. And take joy in what I’ve been given). What about multitasking, the great Zen no-no? I don’t see how anyone can mother (or blog successfully) unpracticed in the art of efficiency but what puts me in the marrow of the moment is consciousness in purpose, which call upon both the thinking and feeling parts of my brain. I’ve probably overthought this. I should study that right brain of my husband’s some more.

182 thoughts on “Time: Lessons From a Dying Brain

  1. Oh, don’t get me started:). I saw Jill Bolte Taylor’s interview with Oprah and couldn’t decide–blessing or curse. And then there’s the whole space/time bit–where quantum science meets spirituality. Believe Eckhart Tolle and the moment is really all we have . . . for those of us born to multitask–to have plans A, B, C and a thousand more–that is the toughest and most blessed statement ever.

    • Well put, C. I think the most extreme things that happen to us are often a double-edged sword. Our strength is our weakness and and the geniuses of the world are their worst enemies, right? Interestingly, I also mentioned a few times on this thread that I suspected spirituality was new terrain for her, which is why she responded (almost hungrily) as she did to The White Light. I like how you put it…those of us born to multitask. Well, there you go: I can’t help myself. It’s in my genes!

  2. I try to learn lessons from the past and apply them to the future so that the past isn’t wasted. Anticipating the future can help me get through the present (even if it doesn’t exist! :)) The older I get, the more I enjoy the present and take the time to be present with people and projects. Thanks for such a post to get me thinking this morning!

  3. I have learned to live (mostly) in the present, but it was only by shattering the illusions of the past. Now…now I drink deeply of each moment, and have relinquished control and in this surrender, am finding the peace I always pursued, but could never quite grasp. Such a dichotomy…Thank you for this post.

  4. Very interesting ideas. Thanks. Just an afterthought. I often reckoned that husbands can be relaxed and not worry about things because they know, if something comes up, their wives will do it for them. And then she has to, because she knows he’s not going to. Oh dear, vicious cycle.

  5. A very interesting post indeed. Just when I thought I knew about what it was to BE in the moment, I may have to rethink the concept. Meanwhile I will try being in the moment even though the past and future still remain.

  6. Deep thoughts! I like your important conclusion about doing what gives you joy and taking joy in what you’ve been given, and your comment “we are human beings, not human doings” – haha, I’ll chew on that one for awhile too! All the best! ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. This reminds me of an article I read in The Atlantic about happiness vs meaning. They aren’t the same thing and, in fact, the pursuit of happiness can and often does interfere with the pursuit of meaning. The funny thing is that people who pursue meaning tend to be tougher and more satisfied, but they aren’t particularly happy. People who pursue happiness aren’t particularly tough (possibly less than average) and they aren’t particularly satisfied, but they are happy.

    I think I’d prefer meaning.

    • Interesting distinction. I often heard pursuing happiness only keeps it elusive, but you draw two categories of people. More cerebral, I can easily see myself in sharp contrast to someone I know who is more emotional. Being in a committed relationship brings out the dichotomy sharply, too. You come to see whether you’re the type who’d rather be right or happy.

  8. Im in this moment reading your words, but by the time you respond I will be in another moment on the other side of the world maybe asleep. The mind fascinates me Diana how all these minds never stop thinking. If we could see that consciousness in colours imagine what a vibrant painting we would see of the human life struggle. I like how living for today and this moment makes me feel but it is different for everybody.

    • “If we could see that consciousness in colours imagine what a vibrant painting we would see of the human life struggle.” What an amazing thought, K. I JUST read about how scientists measured Ann Druyan’s brain waves with an EEG test after she and Carl Sagan had just realized they were in love (with each other). They compressed those waves into one minute of sound and sent the “song of a brain in love”(along with other cargo) out on the twin Voyager spacecrafts in 1977. They say it sounded like exploding firecrackers and is still soaring out there. I thought that’s something to blog about someday. But this very thing is what musicians and artists like you are doing, isn’t it? Capturing the human heart which the brain records in helpless wonder with song and paint and brush.

      • The beauty of it Diana is we can paint it with words too, like you do so very well. Interesting experiment. I often imagine what each persons aura colours would look like just by their personalities. Another thing Im fascinated with.

  9. As a man, I admit to being the one who doesn’t worry much about the future or dwell on the past much either except when there is a crisis that requires it. The strange thing is I spent much of my working life as a mental health nurse, working through things from the past with my clients, (mostly adolescent in-patients.) I wonder how much this is a male-female split, how much is learned? (Break to remove bread from oven)

    Would I be different if I had children? If so in what way? I have had a career working with them but I gave them to someone else at the end of the shift!

    • Ha ha. Great feedback, questions even better. And I most certainly appreciate the acknwldgmt that it’s a whole other ballgame when you bring the kids home with you. It’s funny how we’re able to distance ourselves from certain attitudes, perspectives, and habits; how we are able to do certain things as professionals helping others but come home and not only wear another hat but a different brain.

  10. Thought provoking post D. I like Dan Gilbert’s take on being in the moment. Explaining it by using the ocean and the sand as an example helped me to grasp the concept. The brain is the most fascinating of computers isn’t it?

  11. Multitasking! Zen has much to teach us about multitasking, Zen teaches us to live in the moment, be mindful of the moment, what you are doing here an now. We think that when we are doing multiple things we are multitasking when what we are actually doing is switching our mind from one activity to another in sequence, albeit very rapidly, What is the outcome of this process, That will depend on the activities we are doing, If we are texting and holding a conversation at the same time we make mistakes in the text and lose the thread of the conversation. Yes we eventually complete the two tasks but it does take longer and with many more mistakes. On the other hand if we are walking we can easily hold a conversation at the same time. Multitasking can produce a cognitive impairment. Memory retrieval is more difficult when multitasking than when concentrating on one function. We live in a hectic world where “multitasking” is the norm. We need to learn how to uni-task. Concentrate on one function at a time, if you need to have a conversation and send a text, stop one or wait until one is finished before doing the other. On an ending note, there is a story in Zen where the master trying to impart the lesson of mindfulness said to his student. โ€œWhen drinking tea,โ€ the teacher told his student, โ€œjust drink tea.โ€ One day, that Zen student whose teacher told him to just drink tea discovered his teacher, drinking tea and reading the paper. When confronted, the teacher said, โ€œWhen drinking tea and reading the paper, just drink tea and read the paper!โ€

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