Science

TED Weekends wonders: Can you reset your brain?

Posted by: Kate Torgovnick May

Jill-Bolte-Taylor-and-TED

One morning when she woke up, Jill Bolte Taylor felt pain behind her left eye similar to what she’d felt biting into an ice cream cone. Soon, her own appearance — from her hands to her reflection — felt utterly bizarre to her. Next she lost her balance and then her internal chatter simply stopped — years of thinking dissolving into silence. It was only when her right side became paralyzed that she, a neuroscientist, realized that she was having a stroke.

Jill Bolte Taylor: My stroke of insightJill Bolte Taylor: My stroke of insightIn her classic talk from TED2006, watched more than 10 million times, Taylor explains what it felt like to have a stroke, and how the experience — from which it took her eight years to recover — gave her a deeply different understanding of who she is.

Today’s TED Weekends on the Huffington Post explores the theme “Resetting the brain,” digging into the ways our brains frame our lives, often in contradictory, unexplainable ways. Below, three of the essays from the site.

Jill Bolte Taylor: Does Our Planet Need a Stroke of Insight?

Before 2008, everything I did had something to do with mental health. I’m a neuroscientist, and I was all about understanding how we create our perception of reality, and understanding what’s going on in the brains of people who experience hallucination and delusion.

But then I gave a TEDTalk about my own experience with stroke. Within weeks of delivering that talk in 2008, my life changed and the repercussions still resonate loudly in my world. My book, My Stroke of Insight, has been translated into 30 languages. Time and Oprah’s Soul Series came calling. I’ve traveled to Europe, Asia, South America, Canada; I’ve crisscrossed the states. And in February 2012, I took a trip to Antarctica with Vice President Al Gore, 20 scientists, and 125 global leaders who care deeply about climate.

While I was traveling the globe, I still thought my core issue was mental health. But, perhaps spurred by that trip to Antarctica, I’ve come to understand that the two issues of mental health and global health are closely linked — if not one and the same.

Read the full essay >>

Ben Thomas: Some Songs Just Can’t Be Heard

The composer’s wife had died suddenly; violently. Here, at the premiere of his latest piece, the audience whispered that this new song must be a tribute to her memory. From the first notes, vast choruses of voices seemed to tear themselves from the strings of a single violin — gnashing in conflict, pleading for understanding; howling beyond the reach of words.

Despite the Chaconne‘s harrowing nakedness, none of us can know just how it felt to be Johann Sebastian Bach as the piece’s strains first poured from his pen. Although the composition conjures up, as the composer Brahms wrote, “a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings,” the original of that world belonged — and still belongs — to Bach alone. We can guess intuitively at his thoughts; try to feel how we imagine he felt — but no matter how closely we listen, we can never fully know how it felt to be him in those moments.

And after all the centuries since Chaconne, we’re still struggling to understand just why that is.

Read the full essay  >> 

Robert M. Bilder’s The Balancing Brain: Finding Harmony and Awareness

Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED talk and book — “My Stroke of Insight” — offer vivid and intensely personal recollections of her life-threatening brain hemorrhage. Her stroke shifts a delicate balance of complementary forces in her brain, generating a dramatic upheaval in her sense of self and the world around her. How can we best understand her experience, and what does this tell us about our own minds and brains?

In Dr. Bolte Taylor’s narrative, the hemispheres of the brain serve as a neuroanatomical metaphor for a duality of consciousness, the hosts of a dynamic tension between competing powers that exist within us all. She emphasizes contrasts between “parallel,” “holistic” and “nonverbal” processing of the right hemisphere, versus “serial,” “analytic” and “verbal” processing of the left hemisphere. Others have emphasized the role of the right hemisphere in dealing with novelty, while the left hemisphere designs and deploys rules, tactics and other “descriptive systems” (language, math, the rules of games). I like to view hemisphere differences from an evolutionary perspective, and particularly think about how the hemispheres contribute to the overall balance of stability and flexibility of brain activity. On one hand, we need to keep ourselves on track by stabilizing and then executing our plans for action. On the other hand, we need to flexibly adjust these plans as needed to match the exigencies of our changing world as we experience these through our sensorium. What happens when the scales are tipped?

Imbalance between brain systems is often the source of problems.

Read the full essay >>