3 Aug 2015

Brain Crash, Brain Reboot, Jill Bolte Taylor and Self Transcendence

I have recently watched Jill Bolte Taylor's interview at TED. Taylor is a neuroanatomist who specializes in the post-mortem examination of the human brain. In 1996 she experienced a stroke and was able to keep lucid enough for long enough to be able to recall her experience. With her scientific training she was able to put together her personal experience with her knowledge of neuroanatomy. This brain-crash has had a profound effect on her view of the mind and the human experience. You can see how emotional she still is about her experience of self-transcendence, which she ascribes to her right brain. It is a wonderful talk full of warmth and humour as her rational mind screams at her that she is in mortal danger whilst part of her is intoxicated with an altered state of mind which she had obviously not experienced before.

The Eastern meditative traditions have had centuries to catalogue and experiment with a variety of states of mind and it would be good for neurologists to read very different theories of mind than those we have inherited during the Christian era. Thankfully, many discoveries being made in the neurosciences make much more sense when seen through the lens of Eastern philosophy. Christian theories of mind, of faith and of religious experiences are deeply flawed and often just plain wrong. They are also damaging to people who have experiences that do not fit in with them but who still feel that they should. To believe the cliché that Eastern philosophy is for old hippies is to ignore over 3,000 years of Indian philosophy. But prejudices are rarely changed through argument alone. Sadly Jill Bolte Taylor had to go through a stroke plus years of therapy, but she seems in fine spirits and has not lost either her mind or her scientific training.

Taking the courage from Taylor's own story, I would like to briefly tell my own. I do so in the hope that perhaps others have had similar experiences and also that someone may be able to either explain it or at least put it into some context. My experience was actually a reverse of Taylor's – a “brain reboot” rather than a “brain crash”. Some years ago I suffered a syncope, collapsing after waking up at night to go to the bathroom. I don't have a really solid diagnosis, and indeed I was misdiagnosed for 2 years as having epilepsy. I shan't go into this side of it unless anybody really wants to know. So, here is my recollection of my mind rebooting after a loss of consciousness.

17 Jun 2014

Can You Do Mental Arithmetic... In Your Dreams?

How good are you at mathematics? How good do you think you’d be at doing mental arithmetic while in a dream? Moreover, how good do you think your dream characters would be at doing similar calculations? This may sound like trying to interrogate a ghost, but such questions are being investigated by researchers in lucid dreaming.

In lucid dreams, not only is the dreamer more conscious of what is taking place, but the characters met in the dream also appear to act as if they too had some form of consciousness or volition and, perhaps more mysteriously, they sometimes impart knowledge not known to the dreamer. This doesn’t mean that dream characters are actually conscious beings from another realm. Before investigating that possibility, researchers are looking at what the behaviours of dream characters may tell us about our own brain function and consciousness. If dream characters can manifest as preternaturally wise, how good are they at more mundane tasks?

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