Christian Long

Jill Bolte Taylor: Her Stroke of Insight

In TED Talks on April 19, 2010 at 1:31 pm

Reflection by KYLE M.

Original TED page w/ speaker bio, links, comments, etc:

Jill Bolte Taylor:  Her Stroke of Insight

Determining the best method to respond to Dr. Taylor’s speech has proved to be a painfully delicate operation.

On one hand, I’m nowhere near gifted enough in the practice of fabrication to suggest her story does not spark a slight urge in me to unleash the water works, and the skillful manner in which she describes her stroke and the resulting philosophical shift she experienced is plainly evident and worthy of admiration. Still, I can’t ignore the highly dubious nature of several of her claims and conclusions, many of which are shockingly erroneous, given her prolific background as a neuroanatomist.

Therefore, despite the sordid feeling churning in my stomach, I must choose to respectfully contest the brilliant Dr. Taylor on a few key issues.

Luckily for my gut, the majority of her speech is devoid of any content remotely deserving of an objection; in fact, her heart-felt and touching storytelling warrants nothing less than a profound singing of praises. The opening half of her presentation contains a remarkably detailed account of her stroke, from the initial curiosity it aroused to the surreal and bewildering decay of her mental capabilities. A lesser speaker might have blackened the atmosphere of the TED stage with such grave material, but she manages to inject her narrative with a flawless blend of humor and poignant passion, resulting in a tale that leaves no eyes dry yet spurs seldom a sentiment of depression in her audience. It’s a truly laudable feat, and certain orators could no doubt learn well from her charismatic technique.

Unfortunately, I harbor a considerably less favorable perspective in regards to the direction she adopts for the remaining duration of her monologue: succeeding her richly textured anecdote is a somewhat perplexing rant, gracing such topics as metaphysics, inner happiness, and sweeping generalizations. The disagreements I hold with this particular segment are manifold, and while the bulk of them are philosophical, a disconcerting deal of them involve the doubtful science she utilizes to buttress her ideas.

Namely, when detailing the means through which she believes “everyone” (the curious nature of that broad brushstroke shall be touched upon shortly) can attain “inner Nirvana”, she concocts an exceedingly misleading portrait of the right and left hemispheres of the human brain: the most glaring flaw being her implication that the two regions represent two utterly separate breeds of consciousness (the right representing one’s identity as an individual, the left connecting one to the collective “life force power of the universe”) and that one can somehow switch freely between them.

For one, the boundaries of human awareness are not at all limited to these two areas; rather, the various states of consciousness are nigh fathomless, depending on which sub-divisions of these hemispheres are active. She also appears to be under the impression that certain functions such as parallel processing and the osmosis and of language are relegated to a single region of the brain, which is patently untrue; under given circumstances, both hemispheres can perform said tasks with relative ease. Another notable bit of misinformation Dr. Taylor proffers is that the key to happiness if the ability to alternate between hemispheres; considering the ingredients for joy reside primarily in the left portion, I can’t help but wonder how that makes a smidgen of sense.

Of course, I’m not nearly as qualified to speak as she is in this field, so I would happily concede she might very well know something I do not; regardless, the ideology she intends to spread based on these concepts raises a twinge of concern within me. My core reservations rest in opposition to these two statements: that her experience was a gift, and that the inner peace she’s found is achievable to the populace at large.

With the former claim, I’m compelled to point out the (most likely unintentional) inherent selfishness coloring it; does she really intend to imply that some sort of metaphysical force thought she was special enough to survive and recover from her stroke, while those who’ve only suffered due to theirs were somehow unworthy of this gift? To claim that one has experienced enlightenment through adversity is perfectly reasonable, but to go further and label it a present from some divine authority reeks of egotism.

Her second claim, quite curtly, is not even borderline feasible. It took a stroke and a decade-spanning recuperation for her to reach her condition, and I hope she is not inciting people to forcibly induce the same circumstances onto themselves. As mentioned before, she states that this is reachable through learning to dance between the two hemispheres; even if we grant (for the sake of argument) that this is beneficial or even possible, it would necessitate a healthy dose of meditation on the individual’s behalf. The unfortunate reality is that the world is not quite as stable for someone in a lesser economic standing than her; many people have hardly enough hours in the day to earn money sufficient to feed their family, let alone to devote to questionable metaphysical exercises. Unless, of course, she has a solution to poverty; in which case, that’s a TED Talk I’d kill to see.

Make no mistake: Dr. Taylor is a powerful yarn-spinner and a presumably genius scientist.

Nevertheless, TED is about ideas, and these must stand on their own merits; from my point of view, the good doctor’s, unfortunately, hold very little water. I’m overjoyed that she’s found enlightenment, but no amount of talking is really going to provide it for anyone else; it’s something they will need to experience on their own, and I do wish she realized that.

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