TED 2008 kicked off it's five-day conference strong in Monterey, CA and Aspen, CO yesterday, with presentations by folks like Stephen Hawking and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (the spiritual leader, not Ravi Shankar, the musician. and father of Norah Jones).
One of the most powerful presentations of the afternoon for me was the one by Jill Bolte Taylor, a brain scientist who gave an incredible, personal account over an 18 minute presentation of her own stroke almost a decade ago, and the long path to fully recovery.
Like so many others, I have a loved one (my mom), who experienced a stroke a few years ago, and have struggled trying to understand what something like that really involves since then.
Bruno describes Jill's presentation well with this passage, along with a picture of the real human brain she used to explain what was going on where:
"Jill Bolte Taylor is incredible: she's a neuroanatomist (brain scientist) who has suffered a stroke and studied it "from inside", as it happened, while her brain functions shut down one by one: motion, speech, memory, self-awareness.
It took her eight years to recover, and to become a spokesperson for the possibility to come back.
"I studied the brain because I have a brother who's been diagnosed with a brain disorder, schizophrenia. What are the biological differences between the brains of individuals diagnosed as "normal" and those diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder?
On the morning of December 10 1996, I got my own mental illness: in the course of four hours I watched by brain completely deteriorate in its ability to process information. I could not walk, talk, think.
If you've ever seen a human brain (she shown a real human brain -- picture above): it has two hemispheres.
The right hemisphere functions like a parallel processor, while the left hemisphere functions like a serial processor. So they process information differently, they think about different things, they care about different things, and I would say that they have very different personalities. Our right hemisphere is all about this very moment, right here right now. It thinks in pictures, Information in the form of energy sterams in simultaneously through all of our sensory system and then it explodes into what this present moment feels like. I'm an energy being connected to the energy alla around me through the consciousness of my right hemisphere. And through that we are all connected. And in this moment we are perfect, whole, and beautiful.
Our left hemisphere is a very different place. It thinks linearly and methodically. It's all about the past and about the future. It's designed to take that collage of the present moment, and pick out details after details, categorize them, associate them with all of what we have learned in the past, and project into our future possibilities. It thinks in languages. It's the internal chatter that connects us to the external world. It's the calculating intelligence that reminds me when I have to do my laundry. And most important it's the voice that tells me "I am". And as soon it says that, I become separate from you. That's the portion of my brain that I lost on the morning of my stroke.
On that morning I woke up to a pounding pain on the back of my eye. It just gripped me, then released me, then gripped me, then released me. I got up trying to perform my usual routine, jumping on my exercise machine, and I realize that my hands look like claws. It's like as if my consciousness had shifted away.
I got off the machine and walked and realized that my body had slowed down, every step was very rigid. I stood in my bathroom ready to go into the shower and looked down at my arm and realized I could no longer define the boundaries of my body, of where I begin and where I end, the molecules of my arm were like blended with those of the wall, am all I could detect was energy flowing.
Then the chatter in my brain went silent. For a moment I was shocked to be in the total silent. Then in an instant my left hemisphere came back online, and I realized that I needed help; then I drifted out again, into "la-la-land"; then in again. I was walking around my apartment, telling to myself: I have to get to work. Then I realize: I'm having a stroke. And my left hemisphere tells me: wow, this is so cool, how many brain scientists have the chance to study that from the inside?
But I need to get help. I get to my office, I pick up a card, I can't figure out what's on it, my brain is back in la-la-land. Then I have a wave of clarity. Drifting in and out. (She goes on describing the difficulties of dialing a phone number and communicating to get help, unable to read the number, "because the pixels of the words blended with the pixels of the background"), and then I would wait for a wave of clarity. It took me 45 minutes to find the right number.
I'm in an ambulance towards the hospital and I realize that I'm no longer the choreographer of my life. Maybe the doctors will give me a second chance, maybe not. And right there, I just feel my spirit surrender -- I say goodbye to my life.
When I awoke, I was shocked to discover that I was still alive. My life was now suspended between two strains of reality: information streaming in but I could not pick voices out from the background noise. Sounds were so loud and chaotic. I just wanted to escape because I could not identify the position of my body in space. I felt enormous and expansive, and my spirit soaring.
I found nirvana. I remember thinking: there is no way that I can squeeze the enormousness of myself back inside my tiny body. But then I realized: I am still alive. And if I found nirvana, then anyone who's alive can find nirvana. And I pictured a world full with beautiful, peaceful, compassionate people who knew that they can come to this space at any time. What a gift a stroke can be to the way we live our lives. That motivated me to try to recover.
Two and a half weeks after the hemorrhage, the surgeons went in and removed a blood clot the size of a tennis ball. It took me eight years to completely recover. So who are we?
We are the life horsepower of the universe, and we have the power to choose moment by moment who we want to be in the world, we can choose the consciousnesses of our right hemisphere or that of our left hemisphere.
These are the "we" inside of me. Which would you choose? Which do you choose? And when? I believe the more time we spend choosing the peace of our right hemisphere, the most peace we will project into the world and more peaceful our planet will be."
I've excerpted the full presentation from Bruno's post to try and convey the emotional impact of a presentation like this.
It was a riveting presentation, and I'll put up a video link from TED when available. It really is a big step towards not taking one's brain for granted.
By the way, I'll be twittering (aka Twitter blogging) a fair bit from TED most of this week, joining in the conversation by many other TED attendees who're also twittering the conference. This list by Austin Hill is a good place to keep track of these tweets. My twittering of the conference can be accessed at my Twitter link here.
More to come.