I got acquainted with Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor and her TED talk on her “stroke of insight” through two very different sources, both within one day of each other. Just last morning through a friend of mine who’s father suffered a stroke this week, and today through a blogger who sent me a comment after reading my blog post debunking the pernicious left brain vs right brain myth.
After watching the video, I must acknowledge that Dr. Taylor is a very good motivational speaker. But that’s about it. She might be great at telling stories and connecting with people’s emotions but she is really bad at science. Technically, she is a scientist, but what she is doing is most definitely not science. And she dresses everything in so much poetry, mysticism and cheap philosophy that it is quite difficult to point out exactly what is wrong with it, or even know where to begin a rational criticism of it. There is just too much. Watch the video for yourself, and see what I mean.
After being treated to an explanation of why she decided to be a brain scientist (she has a brother with schizophrenia), we are also given a peek at what might turn out to be an ironic twist of events, because schizophrenia, the inability to tell dreams from reality, is a very suitable explanation of what is happening with Dr. Taylor. Next, she gives a poetically articulated but very factually wrong explanation of the differences between the left and right hemispheres of the brain (yes, that ugly myth again). Since I already tackled that subject on a previous post, I will not do it again here. The only thing I will say about it is that no matter how many times she repeats it at her frequent conferences, that does not make it true. Calling your dog a fish will not magically turn it into a fish, regardless of how many times you say it or how strong your conviction is (unless you are a Jedi, of course). If you want to prove that your dog is a fish, you will have to give evidence that it is. If Dr. Taylor wants to bring back that myth, that is fine by me as long as she has evidence to support it. Hint: “It was revealed to me during a stroke” is not evidence. To be fair, she does not seem to be trying to bring back a previously debunked conception, it is that she does not seem to be aware that it was debunked over thirty years ago in the first place.
Aside from those two things, the first thing that became obvious to me was that Dr. Taylor is a perfect example of something that I have pointed out many times before. Namely, what happens when a scientist is bad at philosophy. In this case, I mean philosophy in the simple sense of keeping your ideas in order, of structuring your own thoughts and to be cautious in your conclusions. In this sense, Dr. Taylor is as bad at philosophy as Charlie Sheen is at staying sober or Lady Gaga at keeping a low profile. She had a very unusual experience resulting from an hemorrhagic stroke in her left hemisphere, and she describes in vivid detail how she gradually loses her faculties and how her conscious experience of the world is changed multiple times. This is what she says:
And then I lost my balance, and I’m propped up against the wall. And I look down at my arm and I realize that I can no longer define the boundaries of my body. I can’t define where I begin and where I end, because the atoms and the molecules of my arm blended with the atoms and molecules of the wall. And all I could detect was this energy — energy.
According to her, this is evidence that a) losing the left hemisphere of your brain enables you to get a better picture of reality because by losing its influence over your consciousness, you are treated into some privileged viewing angle of what reality is. And b) we are one with the “energy” of the universe. She goes on:
And I’m asking myself, “What is wrong with me? What is going on?” And in that moment, my brain chatter — my left hemisphere brain chatter — went totally silent. Just like someone took a remote control and pushed the mute button. Total silence. And 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.
We are all obviously packets of energy interacting with the energy that composes the universe and all that energy is one and the same. Her left hemisphere is the only thing that was preventing her from realizing this “truth”, and it is exactly what is preventing us too. Unfortunately for her, it did not last long:
Then all of a sudden my left hemisphere comes back online, and it says to me, “Hey! We got a problem! We got a problem! We gotta get some help.” And I’m going, “Ahh! I got a problem. I got a problem.” So it’s like, “OK. OK. I got a problem.”
She is now attached to the “normal reality” (she refers to it that way several times) that all of us experience every day. But luckily, she slips out of it again:
But then I immediately drifted right back out into the consciousness — and I affectionately refer to this space as La La Land. But it was beautiful there. Imagine what it would be like to be totally disconnected from your brain chatter that connects you to the external world.
As a philosophy student, this sort of thing is particularly irritating. Since she claims that the left hemisphere of the brain is where a person’s “rational self” is contained, this amounts to saying that rationality is what keeps people from getting in touch with reality. I am sure Dr. Taylor holds this conviction strongly, and is admirably consistent at it. Throughout the whole eighteen minutes of the talk, not a single shred of a rational argument can be found. I know that I might be starting to sound extremely harsh, but I am just being honest. She bases everything she is saying on bizarre experiences that she had while suffering from brain failure, explains them by alluding to a physiological and psychological model of the brain that is demonstrably wrong (the left brain vs right brain myth), and then concludes that her experiences are a reliable indicator that provides insight into the true nature of reality. This is simply a non-sequitur, and the reason why I said that her philosophy is abysmal.
I said that her science is also really bad, and mentioned one reason above (her failure to acknowledge that the left vs right view of the brain has been thoroughly debunked), but there are other reasons. When one does scientific work, what one does is simply apply the scientific method to one’s ideas. I can have a really crazy idea but that does not immediately disqualify it. Neither does the fact that I have a seemingly reasonable idea, immediately validate it. In science we have a lot of ideas competing with one another for a place in our scientific explanations of the world. Which of these ideas prevail? The ones that survive a process of thorough experimentation, publication, peer review, and independent verification. Again, Dr. Taylor has not done this. All she has done is write a book, go on intervews with Oprah Winfrey and Deepak Chopra, a monologue on TED and give pep-talks to audiences as diverse as MRI technicians, university students, prison inmates and 4th graders (I’m not making this up, it’s all on her 25 page resume), where she presents what she’s doing as a revolutionary scientific discovery and as a scientific basis for spirituality and new age bullshit. The end of the talk is probably the worst part of the whole thing, where she claims that the secret to world peace is to learn how to get away from the rational, calculating, reasonable self of your left hemisphere and step into the right to become the “life-force of the universe”. This is as simple as deciding to do so.
So who are we? We are the life force power of the universe, with manual dexterity and two cognitive minds. 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 am the life-force power of the 50 trillion beautiful molecular geniuses that make up my form, at one with all that is. 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 into the world, and the more peaceful our planet will be.
And I thought that was an idea worth spreading.
I, on the other hand, do not. As I said before, ideas must compete with one another before becoming accepted into our body of knowledge. In an age where the internet allows immediate global propagation of ideas, some really bad ideas are getting undeserved air time. This is one of them. It does not even have a value as an inspirational piece, I believe, because it is not even grounded on facts and I cannot help but feel that she is almost touting the benefits of having a stroke for one’s own enlightenment. It is almost as if she is recommending to have a stroke so that you can get in touch with the “life-force of the universe” (whatever that means), and your spirituality. Even further than that, she is presenting a false image of what a stroke is to people with loved-ones who have suffered from one. Some people might find comfort in the idea that a loved one experienced unparalleled bliss as opposed to agony and suffering, but as it happens with several other things that are not grounded on facts, like religion and the paranormal, false comfort is no comfort at all.
Everything that I have said so far is based on the assumption that her elaborate metaphors are a somewhat accurate representation of her experience. They are grounded on the assumption that what she is saying is true. I believe, however, that there are good reasons to suspect that she is not telling the truth. Some of her descriptions do not make any sense at all. Take her description of the experience of losing her language faculties:
[…] my colleague picks up the phone and he says to me, "Woo woo woo woo." (Laughter) And I think to myself, "Oh my gosh, he sounds like a Golden Retriever!"
And so I say to him — clear in my mind, I say to him: "This is Jill! I need help!" And what comes out of my voice is, “Woo woo woo woo woo.” I’m thinking, “Oh my gosh, I sound like a Golden Retriever.” So I couldn’t know — I didn’t know that I couldn’t speak or understand language until I tried. So he recognizes that I need help and he gets me help.
What enables us to understand what is going on in the world around us is precisely our language faculty. The way that you know that you are sitting in a black leather chair reading about Dr. Taylor from your computer monitor is because your brain is able to relate the objects around you to words like “black”, “leather”, “chair”, “Dr. Taylor”, “computer” and “monitor”. It also relates other things that are more abstract in nature, like activities, with words and the concepts that they represent such as “sitting” and “reading”. The same process enables you to understand the words written on the screen. So, how on Earth is Dr. Taylor able to be conscious of the fact that she lost her language faculty if she lost her language faculty? It would be like saying that I am conscious that I am dead, even though I’m dead. If she said that she could not articulate her thoughts because she is unable to coordinate her vocal chords and her mouth, that would be perfectly understandable and reasonable. That kind of thing does happen. That is not what she is saying, however, since she claims that she was both unable to speak words and understand what other people were saying to her. I call shenanigans.
In any case, no matter how great her presentational skills are and how inspiring some people may find her story, Dr. Taylor is just another snake-oil salesman spreading bad ideas dressed as science to anyone naive or emotionally affected enough to listen (and pay for it). She is really bad at science and really bad at philosophy and she might not even be telling the truth about her experience in the first place.
Addendum: There is a movie, directed by Ron Howard, based on her book that is coming out soon. Considering that Ron Howard is directing and that Jodie Foster is probably going to star in it, it may even get some Oscar nods and make Dr. Taylor a millionaire. I sense a disturbance in the “force” coming soon.