Time: Lessons From The 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 are happy in their easy dance of 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. I have yet to try to be like him, but 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:

pixabay.com

pixabay.com

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 seven billion on the planet who needs 28 hours in her day, I can let go the frustration that the sun sets too soon on my hopes for that day. 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 and 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.