Words by Jill Bolte Taylor

Although many of us may think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biologically speaking we humans are feeling creatures that think. Our sensory data is filtered first through our emotional limbic minds, and then that information is transferred up to higher cognitive centers.  

Every ability we have is completely dependent on the neurons in our brain that perform that specific function. I can move my fingers, focus my eyes on something in the distance, even burst out in anger, because I have cells that perform those functions.

Each of our sensory systems is an organic filter that transduces one form of energy into another. Information coming in begins as raw energy, or matter in motion. When I view the world with my eyes, every pixel in my visual field is composed of atoms and molecules in vibration. The raw data of molecular jiggle is first organised in my visual cortex as blobs, then organised into stripes and the directional orientation of those stripes. Eventually our brains organise the visual information adding color, 3-dimension and movement.  Moment by moment we are using our brains to transduce raw energy data into sophisticated vision. The same is true for our sense of hearing.

Evolution of the mammalian nervous system occurs from the bottom up, if you will. So a sophisticated collection of cells will spend an eternity of time (or so) gradually working out all of its kinks, in search of its own perfection. In the case of the human being, our limbic emotional system has refined our lower automated or reflexive circuitry, while our higher cognitive thinking minds refine our limbic emotions, plus some.

Our two cerebral hemispheres exist as two magnificent collections of cells that contribute both rich emotional content, and higher cognitive thought to the ongoing processing of sensory data, although similar in structure, are quite different in operation. Our right brain is wired holistically toward the big picture of our lives, as it is designed to provide us with the context of the present moment experience. We need to have a rich and true awareness of what is going on in this present moment, in order to assess immediate danger and opportunity. Because our right brain perceives all energy in the external world as inter-related and without boundaries, it is fundamentally compassionate to all that is, as nothing is perceived as separate. Without language, our right brain communicates with us through the kinesthetics of our bodies, and its perception seeks similarities in the energy patterns around us.

Simultaneously, our left brain functions to focus in on the details of our surroundings, and to put those details in order. Our left brain creates linearity and hierarchy. It defines what is right/wrong and what is good/bad. It values materialism and money and it critically analyses everything by seeking differences, asymmetries and imperfections. By organising the world around us we gain a sense of invincibility, and this helps us walk the earth with a sense of control and safety.

When I experienced a major hemorrhage in the left half of my brain and all of that circuitry went off-line, I could no longer walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of my life. And in the absence of that information, I felt that I was as big as the universe, because I lost the boundaries of where I began and where I ended. I lost the temporality of time. I felt infused with a blissful euphoria, and I realised that all of that circuitry that had defined who and what I was in the world, was nothing more than exactly that — cells filtering energy.  

When we face death, when we escape the loss of our life, it is like flipping a switch inside our minds. In an instant we shift beyond our normal way of perceiving, suddenly seeing things differently because we have literally shifted beyond the neuro-circuitry we have entrained with our thought and emotional patterns. No longer entrenched in the hard earned circuits of our existence, we awaken to a different reality. We gain insight into the decisions we’ve made, the biases we have held, and the dogma we have lived by.

In the face of death, things changed, circuitry changed, and so did I.

Dr. Taylor is a Harvard-trained, published neuroanatomist and the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey.

These words were first published in Issue Two of SATORI. To explore issue one further click here.

Created by Duncan Woods & Seb Camilleri