welcome guest
login or register

Brain and spirituality

I randomly stumbled upon an inspiring TED talk about brain and how we experience ourselves either as separate individuals, or as a part of a cosmic flow of energy. And, for some reason, I decided to comment on this. Although, I'm afraid that my comment won't be that inspiring, but more like just path of thinking for those who want to take a stroll down the wilderness trail of thoughts.

First, I do admit that I didn't watch the video - I suck at watching videos - so I read the transcript instead. Second, I have to ask who am I to comment. That TED talk is by a professional scientist, a neuroanatomist with a first-hand experience of a brain stroke. Can I question anything she says, as she probably knows tens of times more than I do? Well, as usual, I'm not going to attack anything she says. I'm not trying to prove her wrong. But as I do believe that human thought - especially scientific thinking - progresses by exchange of views; let me offer some alternative metaphors and additional remarks to consider. I also have first-hand experience of near-death situations, and I know that sometimes a nirvana-like state of mind comes with that. (Yes, I write 'sometimes', because before reaching the age of 18 I had already gone through about half a dozen of near-death situations. And not all of them were particularly pleasant ones.) So, speaking from my own experience, based on what little education I have in philosophy and psychology, let's take a closer look at the fascinating question of the brain and the spiritual experience of being seamlessly connected to the cosmic flow of energy.

Let me first secure the points in Jill Bolte Taylor's talk that I completely agree with:

  1. It seems that typically, in our normal state, we human beings experience ourselves as separate individuals. That is OK, and it helps us to perform our daily chores like keeping ourselves warm and fed. For the sake of simplicity, I'll call this the practical mind
  2. It seems that we human beings also have a natural built-in ability to experience something what Jill describes as "[...] 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." Let's call this the nirvana mind
  3. In a deep state of nirvana, one isn't that good at navigating the normal world. But yet, after returning back to the practical mind, memories of nirvana can still have an enormous and long lasting impact on ones life. Memories of nirvana give an extra boost for a sense of meaning and purpose, they support feelings of universal sympathy and benevolence, there is an enchanted sense of beauty, joy and creativity, there often is a sense of peace and clarity. [Although, on this point I like to add that the mere fact that Jill, me and numerous other people share this kind of experiences, it doesn't mean that it would be the only way to attain similar positive outcomes. If other people have other ways for finding their personal boost in a sense of meaning, purpose, joy, benevolence and creativity, then sure why not.]
  4. It seems that both the practical mind and the nirvana mind are somehow connected to the structure and workings of brain. And that there is nothing wrong about that. If there is some sort of brain chemistry associated with a spiritual experience, it doesn't degrade the value of such an experience. As, they way I see it, the value of such an experience is in that boost in positive energies it can contribute to ones practical daily life.

Jill goes on describing how a blood vessel exploded in the left hemisphere of her brain. And how, gradually, her normal cognitive practical mind shut down, and she was left with a blissful sense of nirvana. Something which she later describes as an experience of "I am an energy-being connected to the energy all around me through the consciousness of my right hemisphere. We are energy-beings connected to one another through the consciousness of our right hemispheres as one human family. And right here, right now, we are brothers and sisters on this planet, here to make the world a better place. And in this moment we are perfect, we are whole and we are beautiful." And this is where I grab my beard and the philosopher in me says "hey, wait a minute, what exactly is the line of reasoning here?"

If I understand correctly, Jill seems to be reasoning somewhat along these lines: "OK, the right and the left hemisphere of brain are almost totally separate, only connected by the corpus callosum, which is made up of some 300 million axonal fibers. And a lot of scientist believe that the right and the left hemisphere operate differently, they process information differently. Now, the stroke took place in the left hemisphere, so I assume it gradually shut down the entire hemisphere, leaving my conscious experience only with the right hemisphere. Therefore, we can assume that in the right hemisphere there is the nirvana mind, while the practical mind lives in the left hemisphere." To me that looks like over-simplifying and jumping to a conclusion.

Is there a reason to assume that all of Jill's left hemisphere was shut down because of the stroke? Later on Jill says that the exploded blood vessel caused a blood clot the size of a golf ball that was pushing on the language centers of her left brain hemisphere. Seems like a good explanation for her experience of losing her language and experiencing a silent mind without any of the inner chat. But is that evidence enough to conclude that all of her left hemisphere was shut down, and what she experienced was the daily normal functioning of the right hemisphere? I doubt so. I'm not a professional when it comes to neuropsychology, but I'd guess there are at least two scientifically documented functions to consider here (I don't know if they are connected or not). First, there seems to be evidence suggesting that any sudden and severe life-threatening situation might trigger a dose of DMT (or a related chemical compound) being released. DMT is a rather potent hallusinogen, capable of bringing about the experiences Jill describes in her TED talk. Second, some brain research suggests that there might be something called 'a god module' - a spesific area in brain, and increased activity on that area seems to be connected to religious and spiritual experiences. With the given evidence, we can't know if the blood clot in Jill's brain was suppressing the activity of her language centers, and boosting the activity of her god module.

But, what is the difference? If I anyhow agree with Jill that human brain is capable of the nirvana mind, then why argue about the specific brain anatomy behind such a wonderful experience? Well, that depends on why we are interested in brain anatomy in the first place. For example, if we want to make the nirvana experience look like 'not mere delusional superstition, but a legit scientifically explainable natural phenomenon' then we'd better be careful with our scientific explanations. Also, I have a vague feeling that the metaphors and explanations we use are also guiding us if we are personally trying to re-experience the nirvana state, or is someone else just reads about these matters and pursues the spiritual path in seek of such an experience.

Jill says "And we have the power to choose, moment by moment, who and how we want to be in the world. Right here, right now, I can step into the consciousness of my right hemisphere, where we are. I am the life-force power of the universe." - I have absolutely no reason to doubt that. If she experiences that she can just switch between the practical mind and the nirvana mind at will, just choosing moment by moment, that is good for her. But then, is there something wrong with those monks who retreat into a monastery and engage in spiritual practice for years and years, until maybe after decades of disciplined training some of them experience nirvana - while they could just have chosen to experience nirvana in the first day of their practice? I mean, surely there might be some other obstacles, too? Although, Jill's case might be different. What little do I understand, the scientific evidence suggests that human brain gets better at things it does regularly. And if, during her stroke and hospitalization, Jill randomly wandered between the practical mind and the nirvana mind so many times that she gained a skill boost in that. A lot like learning to ride a bicycle - first you fall down and struggle with it, but once you master the skill, it becomes a mere matter of choose - moment by moment you can choose to ride the bike or not to ride the bike. But things are different for those of us who haven't yet mastered the skill, then a mere "today I choose to ride a bike" will most likely lead to a bruised knee or even a bleeding nose after miserably falling down with a the bicycle.

Jill's metaphor about the right and the left hemisphere seems to suggest that the nirvana mind of the right hemisphere is all the time there, but it is just obstructed by the linguistic chatter of the left hemisphere. And that, somehow, we could alter the focus or location of our conscious experience, to shift from the left hemisphere to the right hemisphere. Again, this raises three major questions in my mind.

First, already in the mid 1990's when I was starting my studies, I got instructed that modern science on brain doesn't support that much the idea of strict difference of the right and left hemisphere. That all of the brain seems to be running on parallel processing, multiple parts of brain functioning at once, and somehow all of that then just gets unified in our daily waking experience. Also, instead of binary right / left metaphor, I've been more inspired by gradual old / new or bottom / up view of brain. Imagine that on the very top layer of our brain handles things like mathematics, language and logical reasoning. Then a deeper layer handles things like social emotions, and an even deeper layer handles things like primitive survival instincts etc. Now, of course, both the right and left hemisphere have these bottom / up layers, and they are communicating through the corpus callosum. Instead of binary EITHER right OR left, we get a rather manifold view of brain with layers on top of layers, on both sides, each communicating with each other. Put in brief, it is this kind of 'multilayer' metaphor which I learned when studying, so for me binary left-right seems like a dangerously overs-simplified view of brain. (What functions Jill ascribes to the entire right hemisphere, I'd ascribe to certain special states of some deeper parts of brain).

Second, I'm not exactly sure if it so fruitful to see the practical mind and the nirvana mind as kind of a binary opposites. Yes, I know that it is a common view that in a deep state of nirvana one is disconnected from daily reality, unable to perform practical tasks like fishing, hunting and cooking. For those mundane tasks one needs to return to the practical mind. But there is a minor and less known branch of spirituality, where it is OK to experience deep oneness with the cosmic flow of energy while retaining your ordinary perception and being fully able to navigate the practical world. This is where I come from. In my late teenage years, it was exactly that kind of spiritual experiences which helped me get over some of my post-traumatic depression and which gave me an entire new view of life, the universe and everything. Eyes open, looking at the world, it started to transform. Which used to be mere objects visually perceived, revealed themselves as awesome manifestations of cosmic beauty - they were no more external objects perceived by my subjective mind, but my consciousness felt like a part of the network, and the very same energies of cosmic beauty were freely flowing through me, through the trees up to the sky all around the sun dancing on the sky. Also, as I have mentioned in some of my earlier posts, I don't believe that once you use a single word you are automatically cut of from that mystical spiritual oneness. Words aren't necessarily boundaries. Our practical, verbal, cognitive and rational parts of mind can learn new ways. Once words become more like poetry, instead of hiding the oneness they start to celebrate the mysterious spiritual beauty of everything. I mean, if we simply map the practical mind to the left hemisphere, and the nirvana mind to the right hemisphere, I think we run a risk of seeing these two as too distant from each others, as mutually exclusive opposites. I've felt that it might be more fruitful to see our mind and brain as capable of re-shaping and re-arranging. A sudden, powerful spiritual insight might reveal us a new principle of organisation. And then it takes some more work and practice to learn to re-arrange more of our practical mind and daily life according to that principle of cosmic beauty and oneness.

Third, I'm not sure how we would best think of the relation between brain and conscious experience. Jill's metaphor seems to assume that either we can - free at will - just shut down the entire left hemisphere so that we are left with the way the right hemisphere experiences the world, or that the consciousness is like a beam of light and we can shift the location of that light from the left to the right and back. This is a tricky question, and I'd guess it makes a little difference for us mundane people. But metaphors like these might be more important for scientists working in the field, trying to gain better understanding of how our brain works. Well, my hunch says that the totality of our brain functioning at a given moment is just another side of the totality of our conscious experience at that same moment. I mean, if our state of consciousness gets altered, that probably means that the state of brain is altered, too. Jill uses the simple metaphor of 'shutting down the left hemisphere, leaving the normal unaltered functioning of right hemisphere'. I lean more towards seeing the whole brain as a complex network of different areas - and in altered states of consciousness it might be that some of those areas are more silent while another areas boost up, some of them switch to special mode of operation, some new connections might get created etc.

Finally, I do understand that in a TED talk you'd better talk in a brief but inspiring manner. And that often means compromising details and just conveying your main point. So, I'm not trying to spot flaws or errors in Jill's inspirational talk. Instead, as you see, this is what happens when you apply some more critical, scientific and philosophical thinking - you gain more detail, but you might lose a lot of poetical power of inspiration. Hehe, but I wish that the purpose of any TED talk is to offer food for thought for people, instead of offering ready-made solutions to spark further questions, thus keeping the curiosity alive, promoting the flow of exploration, learning and discussion. And I hope to do the same =)

PS. No picture this time. Instead, I'll post a link about that bottom / up way of seeing the brain structure. Although, this is not the one I studied, I was more influenced by a Finnish scientist Matti Bergström, who had a metaphor of nine different layers of brain. A bit simplified, one of his ideas was that in tribal rituals the functions of top layers are reduced, and the human experience dives deeper into the more primitive layers, where we might experience things-not-to-be-completely-explained-by-our-rational-mind.

186 users have voted.


This is interesting. I surely completely agree that Bliss at the cost of Reason is a Bad Thing. I mean, I don't think that is exactly what you were talking about with the commonly held left-right brain thing, but consider this: I assume that in the Bliss state, there would be no need for Reason. Or maybe the loss of Reason leads to the Bliss, because without Reason we cease to be able to comprehend pain. But regardless of which way it works, if Reason is what separates us from the animals, or what makes us Human or Who We Are, I don't think I would want to lose that, even if I wouldn't miss it once it was gone, you know?

I mean, the sort of Bliss experience that she describes, it makes me think of the unreasoned happiness that people exhibit after lobotomy or trepanation, you know?

And if Reason is what makes us human, and if reason is the way that we have evolved or been created or whatever, so that we can work through painful or uncomfortable situations and survive... If reason is the human version of long claws, sharp teeth, or thick fur, then it might follow that without being cognizant of pain or discomfort, then maybe we wouldn't need to use our Reason, and thus cease to be Human.

I dunno. I am not disagreeing with anyone or anything. I just think that a nirvana state is not necessarily a good thing, though. Nor do I think that spirituality is a bad thing; just that I think we have to keep Spirituality subservient to Reason, otherwise we have no way to evaluate the ideals we develop through it, to determine the validity of those ideals.

Reading back over this response, it sounds almost Nietzsche, which I am dubious of, because I think he was kind of a dick, LOL. Maybe Stoicism is closer, I dunno... All I know is I am not smart enough to reason out much about philosophy, hehe. :3

Hehe, to me your reasoning seems all fine =)

So, for the sake of simplicity, let's look at things from the evolutionary perspective. I don't know for sure, but I'd guess every organism with some sort of nervous system comes with a built-in ability to experience kind of Bliss state Jill describes. That state serves an evolutionary purpose - for example, it gets triggered by a sudden, severe, life-threatening situation, where fight or flight aren't options. Otherwise the pain would be too much to bear, so it is easier just to flip into unreasoned happiness. In most of the situations, you probably die happy. But in case the extreme shock didn't kill you, you go through the worst phase in a pleasant euphoria, and only when the acute threat is over, you regain your rational mind and resume your fight for survival. Sounds like a good tactics to deal with extreme situations like brain injury, a car accident, or severe poisoning - states where you anyway can't fight nor flee - you only can wait and see if you are going to survive or not.

Also, Jill describes how the impressiveness of the bliss state pumped new motivation into her system, and helped her go through the recovery process. It has been mostly the same with me. And this is where we come to the question "apart from unreasoned escapism, what are the possible beneficial effects of a bliss state? And what makes the difference, when does it just spiral one deeper into a psychosis, and when does it help one the regain and to rebuild a meaningful healthy practical daily life?"

What little I know, when LSD was discovered, it yielded some pretty amazing and promising results when used as a medication for people suffering from mental disorders. And there are recent studies where people suffering from chronic depression which has not responded to any previous therapy, and then they are guided to take a good dose of psilocybin mushroom - majority of the test participants report significant and long-term improvement in their emotional well-being. So, I think that the medical use is one of the areas which would benefit the entire mankind, if there was wider and deeper scientific understanding on how these stuff work.

But - as you say - we have to be honest and careful with these ideas. A nirvana state is not automatically a good thing. Some people might find the bliss state so comforting that they don't want to face the practical reality any more, and they only seek for any possibility to escape back into the bliss - that's the addict way of losing your life and dignity. In many cases, a dose of hallucinogenic substance triggers just a funny trip which might be interesting and entertaining, but doesn't yield any long-lasting spiritual insight. Or, when it comes to real-life near-death experiences, it seems that pretty often it confirms the pre-existing religious beliefs of a person. I mean, I don't believe that what happens is just a simple non-personal chemical effect of a chemical compound. Any experience - even the deep nirvana state - is interpreted and understood according to the stories, metaphors and models a person has. Although, in some cases, it can also be an experience of discovery and insight, opening up new meanings and new metaphors.

Also, I think you are exactly on-spot with why I feel slightly reserved about the right/left metaphor of brain. It comes with the idea that "in order to experience nirvana, you have to (momentarily) abandon all of your rational thought. And vice versa, as soon as you resume your rationality, only a faint memory of nirvana is left." It reminds me of my University years. Our lecturer in environmental philosophy told that when he was younger, he always sought pristine wilderness, willing to wander in nature untouched by human hand. But then, at some point, he realized that instead of answering the main question, that is more like trying to avoid the question. And for him, the question was "Is human action necessarily destructive and bad, or can there be a harmonious and balanced human-nature relationship?". And so he went on studying different ways of organizing human thought and activity. Like, beavers build dams and birds build nests - every animal species alters their environment in some ways to better suit their own needs. There is nothing inherently bad in doing so, and the question is how to alter your environment so that you don't run the risk of destroying anything vital? - I mean, I think there is a similar metaphor regarding our practical Rationality and spiritual Nirvana. It is not either / or, it is a question of relation and interaction between these two.

And, as said, I certainly don't think that any kind of nirvana experience would be necessary. Maybe not even a goal worth to be pursued for. But, I do understand that for people who have experienced such a state, it is interesting to make some sense of it - try to understand what it is about. And, also, I do think that there would be a lot of therapeutic applications if there was a better scientific understanding of brain chemistry involved - So I wish that the research on that field will go on.

Finally, one more example; I'd guess because Jill is trained in brain anatomy, she uses a brain anatomy metaphor to make sense of the bliss experience. Someone with a religious set of beliefs would probably use such an experience as a proof that his / her religion is true, and that there actually is the god and the afterlife just the way described in their own religious tradition. I think this is the way it goes - we use concepts we are familiar with, when we try to make sense of extraordinary experiences. And, for me, the philosophical path has been reflecting on the concepts and metaphors I've used to make sense of my experiences - both my daily normal consciousness, and those more rare states of altered consciousness. Indeed, to evaluate the spiritual ideals.

Hehe, a lengthy comment, so let's try to summarize it all: the way I see it, I've sought to re-arrange and to re-learn both my daily practical life and my habits of rational thinking so that they don't feel like contradicting the spiritual experience of blissful oneness. Less hectic stressful performing aimed at egoistic goals - more freedom and benevolent creativity to celebrate the mysterious beauty of existence =) Instead of occasional escape into the La La Land, I've sought to create my tiny personal semi-hermit world which could combine a sense of beauty and mystery with the practical chores of daily life in a sustainable way.


Add new comment

Please reply with a single word.
Fill in the blank.