Talk #229: Jill Bolte Taylor's stroke of insight

Or, the TED talk that made me stop watching TED talks

It was back in 2008, and I had started watching TED talks in awe, filled with curiosity and admiration for the speakers that managed to capture the attention of the audience at the very coveted conference. After all,

Attendance at TED is by application, and the attendees -- CEOs, scientists, designers, intellectuals -- are as extraordinary as the speakers, who in 2007 included former US President Bill Clinton, author Isabel Allende, legendary biologist E.O. Wilson, designer Phillipe Starck, and Virgin CEO Richard Branson.

As a mere software engineer at Yahoo! at the time, without even a Toastmasters talk under my belt, I could only dream about attending TED.

In retrospect, I should perhaps thank Jill Bolte Taylor for demystifying the gathering and showing what you really need to do to speak at TED.

Should you watch the talk? Only if you have too much time on your hands. Its value to me was negative, as I wasted time commenting on it and reading the lambasting replies of ardent Jill Bolte fans.

So watch it for context to enjoy the humor below, extracted from the talks' comments. Otherwise, move on.

Dan Dascalescu, Aug 5 2008
I'm certain that Dr. Bolte has gone through a stroke, that it's been very painful, then different, then it took a lot of determination to recover, but that stroke has left her with some serious sequelae (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sequela of traumatic brain injury). She speaks much less like a researcher or PhD scientist, and much more like a prophet, preacher, new age thumper or drug user. I'm not saying she's one of those, but she exhibits clear traits of completely irrational and unscientific thinking, which render pointless the rare opportunity that a brain "scientist" gets to study their own stroke. She's no longer a scientist, sorry. Listen to other scientists on TED (e.g. Dennett, Gilbert, Kamen, Kurzweil, Schartz) and notice that none talk like that.

[my original comment was longer, but the moderators censored parts of it]

Mark Dobbs, Aug 5 2008
Mr. Dascalescu's comments clearly show he has never been exposed to anyone who has suffered a stroke. Dr. Taylor's talk is an wonderful "mini-explanation" of what a stroke victim goes through if they survive the stroke. It is an out of body experience. Just being able to hand draw "dopey shapes" in the air is a triumphant experience for any stroke victim. As the number one cause of disability and the number three cause of death, stroke needs to be better understood. I would be happy to send Mr. Dascalescu a copy of "My Stroke of Insight" so that he might better educate himself on stroke.

Lucas Brandao, Aug 5 2008
Mr. Dascalescu has a point when he says Bolte sounds "unscientific"; but coming to argue that she no longer is a scientist it's way too obscure to me. The irrational thinking traits he points at is the exact thing Bolte is trying - trying - to render us, regarding her experience. The metaphors she uses may seem inconsistent with a clear point of view, but I'd like to remember us all that one of the early steps of any scientific or rational understanding is to name things or problems - unless you believe the "names" are already in the world.

Lilia Patterson, Aug 6 2008
I am amazed at the derogatory comments of Dan Dascalescu which display total lack of knowledge about the depth and wealth of experience that Jill has gone through. The fact that she has been able to share that with the rest of the world, balancing scientific and meaningful spiritual descriptions of her experience at the same time as part of this process, is a truly remarkable thing that can only bring tremendous insight for all of us.

The fact that Dan is unable to comprehend that, maybe is a demonstration of disconnected left brain thinking which is only thinking in terms of 'his own subjective 'past' experiences' and projecting elements of 'that thinking' onto his analysis of the 'talk' given above.

Personally I felt that the way in which Jill shares insight into the way in which the right and the left brain interact is highly insightful and inspiring.

The fact that she was able to objectively observe her own experience, which was essentially a near death experience, and to bring that back to the rest of us mere mortals, and to rationalise it in the process is something truly miraculous.

Dan has obviously never experienced anything like the experiences she describes, hence his 'left brain' analysis - which does not 'share' the 'compassionate, and 'sharing' qualities that a more open minded and 'right' brained person might instead bring to this discussion.

Regarding the description of right brained sentiments or 'mental programming' - in terms of 'human qualities' these are an essential yet frequently misunderstood phenomenon as part of human experience, that are also essential to 'group consciousness' and awareness.

The fact that he thinks it's unscientific for a 'scientist' to examine such 'wider concepts' of human experience show that he has a limited understanding of what it is to be a scientist. By definition 'science' is only worthy of 'value' if it can seek to 'understand' all levels of 'consciousness' not just those limited in scope and focus.

So I can also say 'don't necessarily try this at home' - and also I can say that probably I should forgive Dan for demonstrating 'resistance' to the idea of 'mind altering experiences' because technically if your 'consciousness / spirit' disappears from your 'conventional sense of body' - then that can be a potentially lethal experience, however wonderful it might feel at the time.

D Wentz, Aug 27, 2008
I agree with Dan Dascalescu, not with so many harsh and unkind words..., that this has nothing to do with science,but with pushing our "feel-good" buttons. As a non scientist,, for me she describes a nice shroom / LSD trip. What really would be of interest is to find out, how and why her experiences are so similar (bad trip/stroke vs good trip/stroke) to those trips. Can we actually create Enlightenment with a pill and make this a better world by PX ??? Hey, I like to hear a lecture on that one!

Claiming that was a scientific talk for me is , like the Christians extremist claiming that Creationism is a science.

Alan Barbican, Aug 31 2008
Dan Dascalescu: you say "What does this new agey decry have to do with technology, entertainment or design?". Kindly engage brain before operating your mouth. ""TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. It started out (in 1984) ... Since then its scope has become ever broader". I repeat:

"We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes,lives and ultimately,the world". So this talk DOES belong here.

Could Dan tell us his professional clinical background, upon which he's based his 'diagnosis' of "serious sequelae" and "exhibits clear traits of completely irrational and unscientific thinking"?

I have read many descriptions of brain operation, but this talk made the following points very clear:

  1. The right,parallel processor,has no sense of time,or of personal identity. It is a general purpose pattern matching and processing inductive machine,handling vastly more concurrent info than left side can do.
  2. The left, sequential processor is able to pick out the most relevant info, and understand/interpret/predict the past/present/future. It produces long chains of deduction.

Ms Taylor did not "render pointless the rare opportunity ... to study their own stroke", but used it skilfully - if you will just pay attention.

If you have no sense of identity, how do you decide where your boundary is? If you lose a toe nail, arm, eyesight -are you still you? Hence the arm-wall blurring.

Dan, it isn't Jill that doesn't belong here-and I have't enough letters left to explain any more to you.

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