Comment on Jill Bolte Taylor’s Impressive TED Talk

(After listening to reactions from several reviewers I edited this post on Friday April 4th.)

Over the last week several people sent me links to this video. After reviewing and reflecting, I concluded that I wanted to say something about it. Ms. Taylor’s talk is brilliantly done, compelling, and potent. I find it poetically inspiring. At the same time, I want to take advantage of what she did as an opportunity to distinguish something of how we moderns think, (and don’t think) about important things in our lives.

So start by watching the talk by clicking on the link in the first sentence above. It takes about 20 minutes. This narrative is brought to us by a person interpreting and presenting herself as a scientist. Manifestly she is a scientist, but most of what she is doing is not science. In a nutshell, Taylor recounts how she arrived at brain science as a career, how she underwent a massive brain hemorrhage, how she experienced that event, and the conclusions she developed from that experience.

Ms. Taylor has a passionate, poetic sense of life, and she has undergone a unique experience. Her talk gathers awesome force and credence from the combination of her professional credentials, from the way she describes her experience of her own stroke, and from the actual physical presentation of a human brain on the stage. She inspires her listeners, calling on us to pay attention and commit ourselves to important human possibilities and values.

I have struggled to understand what bothers me about the talk. When I first wrote about it, most of my readers interpreted that I was put off by the fact that she “clothes” the talk in the language of science, while at the same time she is doing good poetry. I don’t think that is the source of my interest in the talk. Rather, after several days of reflection and listening to it several times, I think the issue for me is that this can represent a waste of an important educational opportunity. Rather than opening us to an important new direction for thinking about the human experience, I fear that this talk will produce a kind of ecstatic tranquilization. And, because its poetry and showmanship is so good, it may be a strong misdirection.

As a contrast, I recommend the stunning (but less theatrically compelling) work of Kay Redfield Jamison. Jamison has another version of the central challenge and opportunity faced by Ms. Taylor – that of being a highly educated observer of the functioning of her own brain. Jamison is the author of An Unquiet Mind and other books, who is at once a Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University and distinguished researcher into what is now called “bipolar disorder,” and at the same time a longtime sufferer from bipolar disorder who takes lithium to manage her moods. Jamison is more careful to distinguish her poetry from her science. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kay_Redfield_Jamison. You will see there that Jamison “… has been named one of the “Best Doctors in the United States,” … was chosen by Time magazine as a “Hero of Medicine” … [and] was chosen as one of the five individuals for the public television series “Great Minds of Medicine.” ” (Shirah introduced me to Jamison’s work.)

So, to show what worries me about Taylor’s talk, I will say something about what I think is going on in the talk. Ms. Taylor’s narrative is constructed as a collection of metaphors and metaphoric descriptions. She builds from factual beginnings about her stroke and her experience of the stroke, moves to a description of her experience that is couched in metaphors that look like facts, but are not, and leads to a speculation about the construction of the human being and human experience, which she expresses as as a series of declarations.

Science is about the development of speculations that are then tested with facts that are tested for their truth or falsehood. This talk is not that. In it, the speculation comes at the end, after a great number of language actions most of which are not facts.

Friedrich Nietzsche said this about truth:

What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.
(Quoted from http://www.geocities.com/thenietzschechannel/tls.htm)

‘The truth is a mobile army of metaphors.’ Ms Taylor has marshaled an army most of whose members sound familiar to us, but I recommend caution. The metaphors belong to the past, not the future, and while her story is extraordinary and her concerns deeply worthy, I find her story about where the future will be found deeply flawed. We can learn a lot from examining the metaphors she has chosen as her army for truth, and the kinds of language actions in which she brings her interpretation.

The aspect of the talk that I find most worrisome is the way that Taylor has appropriated a combination of computer and new age distinctions as the core metaphors for framing her interpretation of the human experience. When we say that someone is “anthropomorphizing” something, we mean that they are taking the human being as the frame for understanding some non-human phenomena. For example, we say, “the computer wants attention,” shorthanding as a psychological desire the way that the design of the computer couples with human beings. Is there a way of saying the opposite?

How do we say that someone is using the frame of distinctions that we use to build computers to understand something so non-computerish as a human being? “Compumorphizing?” That is one of the things that Ms Taylor is doing. I guess that the dangers of anthropomorphizing a computer are not great. When we anthropomorphize other animals, we often find that it is more difficult to do things like training dogs. The downsides from interpreting human beings as computer devices, in contrast, I insist, are vast. For one thing, we continue to misunderstand what is happening when people are talking with each other as “sending messages,” which produces no end of mischief.

The following are some of the key distinctions in which Ms Taylor constructs her speculation about what human beings are, and what our possibilities are:

  1. In many ways she refers to the way that we “process information.” Maturana and Varela insisted that brains do not process information, and that there was no way to construct a grounded interpretation of the human being as a concernful autopoetic entity with that distinction. They convinced me, and I am committed to follow their lead in that department.
  2. She compares the two halves of the brain as “parallel” and “serial” processors. As poetry, this is compelling, but I am pretty sure that this is metaphor, not description.
  3. She says that the two halves of the brain are all but unconnected, and shows us the absence of tissue between them. Then she asserts a number of connections between them that, as a number, is simply an abstraction. While physically unimpressive in her presentation of the physical brain, the dimensions, role, and capacity of the corpus collosum that connects the two halves of the brain are more impressive. (From Wikipedia: “The corpus callosum is a structure of the mammalian brain in the longitudinal fissure that connects the left and right cerebral hemispheres. It is the largest white matter structure in the brain, consisting of 200-250 million contralateral axonal projections. It is a wide, flat bundle of axons beneath the cortex. Much of the inter-hemispheric communication in the brain is conducted across the corpus callosum.”)
  4. She uses the distinctions “consciousness,” “mind,” “energy,” and “life force power of the universe” without introducing or grounding what she is talking about. Each then convokes a domain of metaphor, and while unmistakably poetic, each is also unmistakably ambiguous.
  5. She uses the bicameral brain that she shows us as her portal to talking about “the we inside of me.”

Like most of us moderns, Ms. Taylor is blind to the phenomena of language and the way that human beings invent our worlds in language. Listening to her presentation, in moments I was convinced that I was watching a kind of scientific nihilism – a new way of understanding ourselves as the central and only salient elements of the universe. On the other hand, the talk fits some Eastern traditions of thinking about the universe as everything and nothing at once. Ms. Taylor’s world collapses to a conversation between two halves of the brain, one of which has been damaged, and suddenly that bicameral unity is all that is needed to understand the entire construction of the universe.

Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela were inspired by the challenge of making sense of this kind of narrative to develop a grounded narrative about a biology that comprehends cognition and language. I understand that the vast majority of the world has yet to encounter their work, and (like Ms. Taylor) is still using Newtonian biology. Nevertheless, they did develop a new biology, and some of us studied it, and it is available for understanding the kind of phenomena Ms. Taylor is interested in. Fernando Flores was inspired by the horrific results of bad interpretations of what a human being is to bring together the work of Austin, Searle, Maturana, Varela, Heidegger and others into a unified way of understanding the human phenomenon as biological, linguistic, and historical, in which the human being invents concerns, possible futures, actions, institutions, and coping practices in language. Some of us worked hard to develop some competence in this interpretation.

I fear that this talk will become a kind of popular “muzak” with the role of keeping us asleep about the big question that Ms. Taylor ends with: the construction of the human being and the human experience. It fits with too much of the old story about what animates us, and is missing too much of what I am sure needs to be brought to the conversation if we are to develop a rich interpretation that will support the challenges we are facing in the era we have entered.

Certainly we must honor Ms. Taylor’s courage and give thanks to God, modern medicine, and the people who helped her make her recovery from the blow she was dealt. At the same time, let us be careful not to get lost in the thrall of the enthusiastic crowd. Compelling though the experience of listening to this talk may be, I do not think that it is particularly good news for you and me.

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44 thoughts on “Comment on Jill Bolte Taylor’s Impressive TED Talk

  1. Papa,
    I know that this take on the human being as processor (Pentium 17) really gets your Heideggerian goat. If I recall correctly, this is the approach that has taken over university philosophy departments, leaving guys like Rorty to sneak Nietzsche into literature classes. I wonder if you would say why you so dislike the compumorphizing interpretation? What kinds of problems do you see this interpretation producing in the world? (Perhaps you have already addressed this in previous blogs?)

  2. Lovely comment, Nicolas. Thank you for it.
    I have edited my original post, in part in response to your question, and in part in response to other comments I have received.
    I will devote a little more to answering you, either in another comment shortly, or in another posting. Your comment brings nice dimensions to the questions I wanted to open with my post.

  3. Chauncey,
    Just read your revision – much more provocative and grounded. I agree with most of it, especially the paragraph in which you claim that the danger is a kind of tranquilization, a lack of awareness of and courage to confront the challenges of our time (my words). Yes, and yes. That’s what I find abhorrent about all of these reductive narratives – it just won’t cut it – we’ll entertain ourselves out of existence.

    And I loved Nicolas’ comment. How great to engage in this conversation with your son.

  4. The following wonderful comment is from Chris Davis:

    “I enjoyed both Jill Taylor’s talk and your critique. In response to your requests for comments, I offer the following.

    “First, I saw Jill describing a really intense “peak experience.” People report achieving these experiences through drugs, fasting, deep meditation or prayer, and now, apparently, strokes. (In fact, one of my thoughts as I watched was that she never did hallucinogenic drugs in college, since she seemed to have no familiarity with the space she found herself in, whereas aspects of the experience would be at least a little familiar to hallucinogenic explorers.) Her experience might even be dubbed an “awakening” experience or a Sartori experience by Eastern traditions. These kinds of experiences are a glimpse of a deeper unity. The experience ends and the person continues with life in familiar ways, though he/she may have been changed by the experience of what was seen. (Awakening experiences are not the same as the distinction “enlightenment.”)

    “These kinds of experiences are always challenging to talk about, because, by their nature, the languaging aspect is not dominant during them. Jill makes a spirited attempt. I think you have highlighted some of the places she gets in trouble. First, she makes a scientific-sounding claim for which she presents virtually no evidence, which is that our left/right brain split corresponds to the duality of separateness versus oneness. It’s a nice story, but as you correctly point out, that’s all it is at this point. Second, she falls into using the current technology (computers) to describe the functioning of the mind (already a linguistic distinction), without recognizing that she has fallen into the trap that every generation describing the mind does.

    “We do have to remember that the rules of the TED talks are that they are no longer than 18 minutes. Perhaps, if she were given three hours, she would present lots of evidence to support her claim. We don’t know, but I agree she was sloppy in that aspect of her talk.

    “You also point out that she uses a number of words or phrases (“consciousness,” “mind,” “energy,” and “life force power of the universe”) without good definition or grounding. I have some sympathy for her here. There is no word that can describe the unity of it all. The very function of words is to distinguish. To distinguish is to separate. We can talk about the unity, but the words we use will always be false. (These days, I prefer using the word “butterscotch,” as in “It’s all butterscotch.” Butterscotch is warm, fluid, golden, and delicious—like the unity-that-is, but no one misses the point that the word is a metaphor.) Jill is attempting to use words to communicate something that by its nature is beyond words. And she’s a neuron-anatomist rather than a mystic, so she’s somewhat clumsy in her attempt, but I do appreciate her passionate, sincere, and well-intentioned effort.”

  5. “The masses are asses”

    It’s an unquoted quote since I don’t remember where I first heard it. Was in an internal or external manifestation?

    One thing needs to be understood about language and its appropriate use. The vast majority of Jill’s audience (the public at large) lacks interest in, the attention for, or cognitive stamina required successfully to challenge themselves with a deep analysis of her spoken statements for scientific validity or grounding.

    Science bores a lot of people, and the abstract thought processes necessary for scientific breakthroughs such as superstring theory escape a great many more. The consequences of string theory are profound and illuminating our understanding of the universe, its history and the possibilities the future holds for all we know to be within it.

    But the world is changing and we continue to evolve. Eventually we will recognize it is not an understanding of the mind we are searching for, but an understanding of all. So much is yet unknown, so the words to accurately describe all the unknown workings of the mind and universe are by necessity metaphors and anthropomorphisms.

  6. Thank you for the comment, Dennis.
    Google and Wikipedia tell us that the quote is originally attributed to Alexander Hamilton and most recently to Karl Rove.

    Thinking is, indeed, a challenge.
    All the best.

  7. I suspect that her split of the right vs left into an equivalent computer model may have a certain validity, at least from the POV that a computer has to actually have something computable to run and that the human brain operates at levels that do not fit the computable model, at least as Roger Penrose outlines in in “Shadows of the Mind”.

    That the sum of all brain functioning fall away into two, highly separate operations makes great sense to me, and while from a scientific POV, her talk may be found wanting, when you couple her experience and conclusions with that of Penrose, there may indeed be much to follow.

  8. Dear Lawrence,
    I thank you for speaking here. It takes some courage to speak frankly in a public space like this. I suggest you go back (perhaps again) to look at Stefanie West Allen’s updated comments about what Jill Bolte Taylor said, and now has written in a new book. Look here.

    There can be no question about whether some people think what she says makes sense. Now, in fact, after she has been elected one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people on the planet, it is clear that an enormous number of people think she makes sense.

    That was my point in deciding to write the post. I was sure that a lot of people were going to think she made sense, and I have the further interpretation that she is not doing a service to the future of how people interpret what people are, how we think, and how we invent ourselves in language on this planet. In response to your claim that “…her split of the right vs left into an equivalent computer model may have a certain validity, …” I suggest you consider that the claim that the earth is the center of the universe and all the rest of it revolves around the earth has, even today, a certain validity, from some points of view.

    I am interested in something that I call thinking, not in coming to agreement with people.

    Respectfully,
    Chauncey

  9. Chauncey,
    Many thanks for these clear and thoughtful comments. Like Chris above, I both enjoyed Jill B-T’s talk and cringed at some of the imagery. However, to refer to Nietzsche’s words which you cite above, her coinage was new, even though it was derived from the metal of linear metaphor of (!terminological suggestion approaching!) mechanomorphising (or maybe digitomorphising?) of brain/mind as one or more computers. Her basic proposition of an internal co-relation of verbally mediated cognition and (roughly speaking) cognition flowing from raw-ish percept is a valuable new metaphor for folks who may not, as Chris said above, have engaged in intense chemically mediated self-exploration (hereinafter “iCMSE”) or encountered satori or vipassana-like states of introspected self-dissection.

    Your point, from Maturana and Varela, that humans (and other biological entities) do not “process information” is probably still too great a conceptual leap for most members of a culture into which systems ideas, let alone autopoietic systems thinking, is only just beginning to percolate. As a culture, we are still not philosophically comfortable, even in the abstract, with the vertiginous approach to truth following from Nietzsche’s work. The apparently foundationless, self-defining, self-creating whirl of physiological process which might underpin such an epistemology is at the very edge of our conceptual solar system. The idea that “I” may be THAT is, I would guess, horrifying to most of us.

    If those views are at all valid, for me any attempt to dissect, or introduce a new dimension into the several prevalent, almost dimensionless views of humanity which our cultures hold is probably a step forward…even if diagonally forward and into a mud-puddle. 🙂

    Regards,
    Simon

  10. Simon,
    Thank you for more than one good laugh, and some good jazz here.
    I guess I think that she was riffing on left/right brain stuff, and in that regard was not doing anything new. More playing with a metaphor that has been popular and not very helpful for anything at all for 20+ years.
    Her mud-puddle is now inescapable.
    The best to you,
    Chauncey

  11. Thank you for that. Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight is one of the most incredible stories I’ve heard in a long time. Her TEDTalk video blew my mind wide open to new possibilities. On the one hand, there’s what she went through and how she emerged from it. On the other hand, there’s what she can teach all of us.
    I saw the 4 part Oprah interview on Oprah dot com Soul Series and I did learn a lot from that, but I’d like to find our more of how to do what Dr. Taylor did, without having a stroke of course!
    Thin how many of us are living too much in the head, and not the heart. And of course, you can’t get more left brain than a Harvard Brain Scientist. Isn’t it ironic that she should be the one to have the stroke and transform from the quintessential left brainer into this “”seen the light”” disciple of finding inner peace?
    I hope this movement keeps going. Maybe there will be My Stroke of Insight classes where we can practice what Jill Bolte Taylor is preaching.

  12. Dear Ginger,
    Happy though I am for any and all readers to my blog, I’m afraid I must tell you that my suggestion is the opposite of what you are wishing – that we NOT make this a movement, that we NOT practice what Ms Taylor is preaching, and that we ask very challenging questions about what human beings are all about in very different directions from what Ms Taylor is pointing.
    Best,
    Chauncey

  13. Marian B. Goldstein (http://diffthoughts.blogspot.com/) attempted
    to leave a comment here, and was not successful. She emailed the following to me, and I am posting it for her.

    Hi,

    sorry to bother you by mail, but I’ve tried a couple of times to post a comment on your blog entry about Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED talk, and both times it said “discarded” when I tried to submit.

    Although we have a somewhat different background (philosophically), and our fields of interest certainly are very different ones, I found your comment extremely interesting, adding another dimension to and somehow completing my own criticism of the talk, so I linked to it at my blog.

    Here is the comment, I, unsuccessfully, tried to post at your blog:

    I posted the below comment at Accidental Dharma (http://accidentaldharma.blogspot.com/) earlier today. Something was disturbing to me, both about the TED talk and the Soul Series interviews. Something beyond her advocating for NAMI, yet somehow linked to it. I tried to capture it in several blogposts, particularly this one (http://diffthoughts.blogspot.com/2008/06/looking-wrong-place-another-update-on.html), but had a hard time succeeding. While your observations are really spot-on. Thanks for sharing!

    This is my comment: Maybe it’s because you can’t force anyone to have insight, neither through involuntary “treatment” (the “mentally ill”), nor through a stroke, that Jill Bolte Taylor’s insight doesn’t go as far as to respect the “mentally ill”-labelled as equal human beings, but leaves her still judging an experience, she never had herself, and, as the president of a NAMI-affiliate, advocating for a “treatment”, individuals in crisis themselves experience as extremely dehumanizing and oppressing on a psychological level, as well as extremely damaging to their health on a physical one.

    Maybe you really have to go through the pain and suffering of an existential crisis yourself, or at least meet people who are going through that pain and suffering with an open mind, in order to be able to distance yourself from the mainstream, that judges these people’s brain functioning as being physically defective and thus inferior to other human beings’ (genes, brain structure, brain chemistry), although there is no scientific evidence for this to be true.

    Compare Jill Bolte Taylor’s statements on the matter, both at the Soul Series-interview, but especially in the beginning of her TED-talk, with Eckhart Tolle’s and Wayne Dyer’s acknowledgement of social/psychological factors to, at least, contribute a great deal to, if not being the basic cause for the development of emotional crises (so-called “mental illness”). Jill Bolte Taylor does not even mention the possibility of these factors to play a certain role. NAMI explicitly denies any other causes than physiological ones, consequently advocating for a “treatment”, that by a vast number of individuals in crisis is experienced as extremely painful, “a trauma on top of a trauma”, as one of these individuals once put it, and doing more harm than good.

    Having experienced emotional suffering myself (“schizophrenia”), and having been so incredibly lucky as not to become subjected to the mainstream mental health system’s “treatment”, both the interview and the TED-talk left me rather disappointed and disillusioned. Taken the current situation of no scientific evidence in support of physiological causes to exist into account, to judge people mentally deficient and dysfunctional, and to advocate for these people to be, if necessary forcibly, subjected to extremely harmful “treatments”, in my opinion is not exactly a sign of a deeper insight.

    I asked Dr. Taylor to revise her position on this matter, to start and listen to people in crisis themselves, with an open mind and heart, and to, please, stop fighting them. I got no answer so far.

    The documentary Someone Beside You (www.someonebesideyou.com) shows a very different approach to emotional crisis than Jill Bolte Taylor’s and NAMI’s. The film is based on Edward Podvoll’s/Lama Mingyur’s (Buddhist psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, founder of Windhorse) experiences with the help for people in emotional crisis, and lets these people, uncensored, speak for themselves.
    __________

    Thank you for your time and consideration.

    Sincerely,
    Marian B. Goldstein

  14. Thanks Chauncey, for so rigorously challenging the oh so casual popadoption of the left/right metaphor as “fact” — and the problems that ensue. But I think JBT is saying something else that, while metaphoric, is quite interesting. She describes a vivid experience of two quite different modes of… what… being, experiencing, thinking, interpreting? — one bound up with interpretation and assessment (about both the world she interacts with and the mode itself) and one which offers an experience or hint or resonance of a state of undifferentiated “beingness” (to use the fashionable and awful word) that is the apparent goal of many spiritual/meditative/iCMSE practices. (Yes, I know you will say that is decidedly not the goal — but that’s for another posting. 😉

    A double irony of course: (a) the “free of assessment” mode has some distinct assessments about the “immersed in assessments” mode; and (b) she’s quite clear that the “immersed in assessments” mode was indispensable to her survival. No beingness without THAT, eh?

    As to the therapies, perhaps the most startling element in her Fresh Air interview today (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=91861432, and well worth hearing), was her statement that she did relatively little of standard recovery therapies. She described being largely in the care of her mother, who interpreted her as an infant needing to redevelop, rocked her like an infant, let her sleep as much as she wanted, in contrast to “wake at 6am, get fed amphetamines, get wheeled into a room with other patients and TV blaring ‘for stimulation'” — so I’m not sure how committed she is to the theraputic modes that Goldstein decries.

    PS: I _loved_ Simon’s phrase “vertiginous approach to truth”!

  15. Hi,

    I found Jill Bolte Taylor’s Bolte’s TED talk interesting AND I posted it on my blog a couple months ago. That didn’t mean I agreed with everything she was saying, but I did find it very interesting.

    I never addressed some of the issues I found troubling. I think I only posted it saying to my blog readers that it was “interesting.” I found it both bad and good that one of the reason, she stated, that she went into the sciences was to find a scientific “cure” for her brother who has schizophrenia.

    Right off the bat, I was troubled by her reasoning that her brother’s brain was somehow not “right.” BUT I do admire her courage AND I think her understanding of this experience can evolve.

  16. In several instances throughout your longish blog entry, you object to Taylor’s description of her stroke events as “poetic.” As a poet, even one living in the middle of Silicon Valley and who has made a living for decades helping hardware, software and internet companies evangelize themselves, I really take issue with metaphors likening organic events to computer processes as “poetic.” Indeed, I had been trained that poetry was in fact the inverse. But, wait: let’s get a second opinion. Here is how the OED (1971 version, granted, but isn’t poetry timeless?) defines it: “3. …blah blah blah…Composition or verse in metrical language, or in some equivalent patterned arrangement of language, usually also with choice of elevated words and figurative uses, and option of a syntactical order, differing more or less from those of ordinary speech or prose writing.” Now tell me, good Doctor, doesn’t describing something as a computer or computer-like process these days actually equate the something as common, rather than unordinary or elevated? It seems to me that she was using common metaphorical parallels that everyone could relate to no matter what walk of life, and was even a bit trite with her expressions. The point here is not that it is not poetry, nor metaphor nor any other linguistic technique meant to evoke agreement or feeling. It is simply that you chose to couch her expressions as being from a point of view that is unscientific and therefore less true or credible and therefore less valuable. You chose a point of view (that it’s poetic) that isn’t tenable…leaving me to wonder, what is your own frame of reference? As a scientist? If so, your comments remind me of a boyfriend I had once who referred to our neutered cat as becoming a “her.” You can understand the irritation a feminist poet would have with that misaligned metaphor.

  17. So, Nancy, at how many levels are you teasing me, all at once? I am honored to be put in the category of a former boyfriend, and I beg your forgiveness: I should not have called the neutered cat a her; he’s a definite him.

    Do you like what JBT did? Good. What about her becoming “one of the 100 most influential people on the planet”? I am convinced that her talk belongs to the kind of science that underpins a modern way of being we all share (because we live in the west and in this era) that is not good for us. Another example? We are in the time of “evidence-based (medicine, design, everything).” It is lazy of me to say it shortly, rather than attempting to characterize it more carefully: happy horseshit. Obviously the generations before were not interested in evidence. Pasteur, Einstein, Curie steadfastly declined to base their work on evidence. Oh well, our loss.

    I am having trouble understanding your position on metaphors, poetry, and machines. Are you irritated with what I am doing, or not? I find many machines beautiful. I am awed by the majesty of our world, including when I encounter a hole in the ground (called a copper mine) in which thousands of people have been digging for a hundred years. A Boeing 747 is an awesome and beautiful thing. At first glance anyone can see that its flight is a miracle. And what I am able to do here, sitting in front of a Thinkpad and a 22 inch display, reduces me to the kind of awe that I find sometimes in prayers of awe. Look what God and man have wrought.

    You ask where do I stand to observe all this? I actually thought that I had been laying that out pretty clearly in the postings on the blog; it certainly was my intention. I think that we human beings invent ourselves in language, listening and speaking to each other. I think that there is nothing more important than our listening and speaking (for which, obviously, we need bodies, which give rise to and shape our speaking and listening). I think that we take our speaking and listening for granted, assuming that other matters are more difficult and more important; I do not. And I think that we moderns have barely begun to discover our involvement in shaping the kinds of beings we are, the kind of world we live in, and the futures available to us.

    JBT shares, I am sure, a huge appreciation for the phenomenon of being human, and a profound commitment to exploring and inventing futures for us. On the other hand, I am pretty sure that we will not find any “cheese” down the tunnels she is looking. She may entertain us with what I called (and still think of as) her poetry, but I choose others to guide my thinking.

  18. Chauncey, I am honored by your reply. Thank you.

    To be frank, I haven’t yet Taylor’s book, only listen to the Fresh Air interview and watched the Ted video, so my musings are limited to the popular culture version of whatever she proffered to us all. That’s unfortunate, but her book is not likely to make it very fast to the top of my list for the nonce. However, what I like about what she did is brought to my awareness, out of the blue, some of the issues that individuals who suffered strokes deal with. This is meaningful to me because two of my best friends, both in their 50s, are both recovering from similar situations, one from a stroke two years ago and one still recovering from the removal of a brain tumor twelve years ago. I like it that Taylor popularized the topic enough, which probably took quite a bit of simplifying to make it to Mainstream, to come to my attention so that I would see my friends’ situation anew. In fact, I emailed a link to your blog (thank you) to one of them yesterday in order to spawn a deeper conversation between us. I like that Taylor’s work is engendering better communication and closer relationships between my friends and me, and cannot help but think that it is the beginning for me of better understanding of other people around me now and in the future who have the same afflictions.

    I am not a scientist. I am a very curious person, however, and relish learning about all aspects of the universe, internal and external, physical and spiritual. I appreciate people like Taylor and Bryson (A Short History of Nearly Everything) and Wilson (The Creation) and Susskind (The Cosmic Landscape) and Shlain (Art and Physics) making new worlds accessible to me without my having to go back to school to take up a new line of study to understand even the introductory chapters. It allows me a richness of perspectives and comprehension that I would otherwise miss if I were to stick with poetry, literature, art and the social sciences. I would think that even rigorous “real” scientists who take issue with someone like Taylor’s approach would appreciate her causing people like me to be interested in what is going on with neurobiology, and physics and astronomy and and and.

    So, what I was taking issue with in my comments above, and forgive me for not being more clear, was that when you as a scientist took issue with her lack of scientific expression for the events she was describing, you relegated it to “poetry.” As a poet, I have to object: her expressions aren’t poetic, even if they aren’t scientific. Because it is not in the latter category, it doe not fall into the former. Yes, I agree with your postulation that some machines are awe-inspiring. Indeed, my Mac and my iTouch have changed my life and while I still write poetry with pen and ink, I am now steeped in creating imagery with digital mechanisms.

    But I am still not convinced that using a trite metaphor of the brain working as a computer is poetic. It’s hackneyed, sophomoric expression. If I were a creative writing teacher of high school, I would push my students to go beyond that easy choice. I do not take listening and speaking for granted at all, and that is precisely why I am commenting on your blog. It didn’t feel right to me in the first read and then when I looked again it was the loose usage of “poetry,” which I believe to be intense, rich and tightly constructed to qualify, that really bothered me.

    Of course I am not irritated with you, Chauncey. You are one of the most charming, engaging, kindly males I know, that old boyfriend, or cat, notwithstanding.

  19. What a lovely addition to the conversation you have made Nancy. Thank you very much. Now I get what I missed: the critic (me) made an impoverished characterization. I think I agree. Bad poetry criticism. I could not otherwise think how to speak of what I was watching in JBT’s performance. FYI, I am not a scientist; I am rather closer to (bad) poet, with my degree in English Literature.

    Do you like the work of Anna Akhmatova? She is a favorite of mine.

    Here is an index to a ton of poems that are “about” computers. To my eye, casually, it looks like a whole lot of doggerel (Merriam Webster: loosely styled and irregular in measure especially for burlesque or comic effect; also marked by triviality or inferiority)

    List of poems about computers, etc.

    Evidence for your point, generally, but there are things happening with computers that have to do with the invention of the self, human futures, and new human possibilities, and I propose those are worthy subjects for poetry.

    I got one other thing about what I was doing here from listening to your comments. In my original comment about JBT’s talk, I divided ALL speaking into two categories to which, implicitly, I granted my respect. Some event of speaking is science, or it is poetry. The speaking of science follows certain rules about how the speakers (and listeners) deal with each other. Scientists propose interpretations that are REQUIRED to follow certain evidentiary and procedural rules – in the same general way, for example, that participants in a modern court system are required to follow certain equivalent rules. All of the rest of what we do with each other, in this admittedly vast oversimplification that I am wont to do, I call poetry. A great deal of it is bad poetry. But I think of Charlie Chaplin on the screen, for example, as good poetry. My children sometimes do good poetry. My friends sometimes do good poetry. A really good invitation, request, offer, or an assessment that triggers clean and simple action, I think of as ‘good poetry.’ So I see that I myself was using ‘poetry’ as a metaphor to name a kind of performance that triggers our nervous systems effectively.

    Thanks again!

  20. I followed this debate a few months ago at the time of your post, and found myself nodding in silent, polite agreement with the critics. But then tonight, my wife told me about the video and wanted me to watch it (I already had), and we proceeded to discuss it. She is not a scientist — in fact, pretty much tunes it out. We talked about some of the criticism and then about how she had perceived Jill’s message. As a result, I started to apply some critical thinking to the criticism of Taylor’s talk and realized a couple of things:

    1. It’s a shame that the scientific inaccuracies are causing some to dismiss the core message of her talk. This is, in itself, a logical fallacy — in reverse. Just because she has some “bad science” in her talk doesn’t mean that her conclusions are flawed. Whether her condition would have happened regardless of where the stroke occurred or not, and whether her description of right/left brain function is accurate or not has very little to do with her conclusion that the world would be a whole lot better place if we could all get more in touch with that “side” of ourselves. And it certainly doesn’t invalidate her experience. Let them be metaphors instead of scientific facts. Don’t let the bad science blind you to a good message. The specifics of right/left brain function was a trivial part of the argument.

    2. It’s also unfortunate that some scientists continue to insist on “facts” being something that’s reproducible in a laboratory. When we are discussing rare events that occur at the fringes of consciousness, it’s impossible to reproduce the results because it’s impossible to reproduce the exact circumstances. That doesn’t make Jill’s experience “non-factual”. This is why noetic, experience-based, scientific research is both important and valid. To call Jill’s experience “non-factual” and invalidate her conclusions on that basis is again a logical fallacy — the burden of proof. Simply because her experience can’t be reproduced (because the standard of proof is impossibly high) does not make her wrong, nor does it make any other explanation “true” simply because her experience can’t be “proven”.

    3. I had no problem with her choice not to define “consciousness,” “mind,” “energy,” and “life force power of the universe”. That would have taken half the talk, been boring as hell, and 80% of the people wouldn’t have agreed with her definitions and would have imposed their own on what she said afterwards. That doesn’t make it metaphor — it just acknowledges the fact that even scientists who study these things on a daily basis can’t completely agree on what they mean.

    $0.02 from someone trying to spend a little more time in his right brain. 🙂

  21. Sorry for the long lag from your comment to my reply, Scott.

    Thank you for reading, reflecting, thinking, discussing, and commenting. I am honored to have been in part a provocation for that.

    As to your comments themselves, I agree that scientists often damage their capacity to interact with people by slavish, orthodox attachment to their methods, as you point out. Underneath all of that, I think the source of the difficulty is a collection of poor interpretations of what human beings are – which was, of course, what I was going after in the original posting.

    As to JBT, I find her a powerfully compelling person, enchanting. Her ambition, I interpret, is to delve more deeply into the question of the human experience, and to show more of what a human being is. I share that ambition. But she’s trapped in the background to which you point.

    I think your comments make a good contribution to the conversation. Thank you. Worth much more than 2 cents, and the left/right brain stuff, a poor metaphor for traditional Cartesian rational/emotional, male/female, subject/object atomization of the human being, deserves the happy face with which you adorn it.

    All the best to you.

  22. Pingback: Brain and Consciousness: Jill Bolte Taylor | Storied Mind

  23. I just watched the Oprah series for the second time, because the first time left me perplexed and uneasy about some of the things Ms. Taylor said and the way Oprah “bought” the whole program. The second viewing only reinforced that. Now, I’m not a scientist at all, but there are several things that struck me as being extremely contradictory:

    1. She talks about water hitting her chest like bullets while in the shower, light hurting her eyes, sounds becoming amplified, all the chatter and “noise” she was hearing, and yet at the same time she says that while she was in the “right side space” there was peace and unity? That doesn’t sound very peaceful to me.

    2. She also talks about the “wonder of being alive” and sitting on the couch with a grin on her face. So where did all the noise and sensitivity to lights go? And sitting on the couch smiling doesn’t sound like a productive human life to me. Imagine, we’d still all be living in caves, or something like that.

    3. Frankly, I’ve had the ability to go into that “NOW SPACE” for most of my life, mainly when I’m painting and so fully concentrating on the here and now shapes and colors that there is no past or future. But it’s a temporary thing. The chatter comes back, especially when I’m surrounded by other people where one has to pay attention and is forced to make judgments of what they say and do. One also has to be aware of the chatter to avoid danger because we are forced to judge and make choices with such simple things as just crossing a street.

    4. When she spoke about making a choice to come back, that is “logic” working. It seems to me if she was really into that peaceful space that she talks about and being united with all, logic would not enter into it.

    So, more than anything, the whole series left me puzzled, perplexed, in disbelief that she is for real or that her experience was for real. On the other hand, I do agree that when I am in the “NOW” while painting and feeling “connected” and “truly alive” there are no words to describe that, so perhaps she was just describing something that is difficult, if not impossible to describe. But I’m still skeptical about it all and the way everyone seems to have bought the story.

    The only area she spoke of where I felt reasonably comfortable is when she spoke about taking responsibility for our thoughts. Yes, we can control out thoughts, but it takes huge amounts of effort and is simply not as simple as she says it is.

  24. PS. The other thing she mentioned is that she has no great ego after her experience. Then why is it I thought her performance was great big ego from beginning to end? Was that just a “false” impression? I don’t think so.

  25. It seems to me that most of the naysayers are “scientists” of particular disciplines that seeminly do not allow for the scope of the materials discussed by Ms Taylor. In other words, the contradistinctions are presented from ignorance… yes? This is not any reflection of the waht the said naysayers “do know”, but rather puzzlement at how they can expect to be taken seriously when they criticize something they “do not understand”.

    The key, it seems to me, is to strip away the showboating and unecessary emotive slant of the video and tv appearances and [try to] abstract the essence… and then to ask: “Is nothing that she experienced possible?”

    It seems that science needs to first understand philosophy if it wants to denegrate ideas that are not immediately explainable… someone once said that science is the art of “putting in order the facts of experience…” Accordingly, the naysayers really out to restrict themselved to doing just that rather than cast doubts about a person’s ability to sing or write poetry…

    Life is stranger than fiction; facts interfere with a good story…

    Anthony

  26. Hi Chauncey,

    I have not read any pedantic pseudo-intellectual stuff in a long time. It hasnt changed over the years and is still as ridiculous as ever. Your oxy-moronic statements and catch phrases abound. Im sure you think yourself as oh so clever. In short, you could be a politician with your ability to talk so much and yet say nothing at all. I might add, you do it brilliantly enuff to even confuse yourself,- which is evident and so very obvious to me. You have missed the point of Taylor’s rant, but not to worry – you dont need anything she has to say, yet!!!

    Good Luck to you,
    Bobo

  27. Jill Taylor,s comprehensive analysis of the workings of brain and recovery is highly mind blowing,and she deserves great applause despite few contradictions in her works.But then,Taylor has done greatly to the development of science in this contemporary world.
    Shola Ajekiigbe,
    Ibadan,Nigeria.

  28. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

    Her presentation certainly seemed in the style of the great traveling charlatans and revival ministers. I think that’s what stuck me first and foremost about her. Eyes closed, hands raised to the heavens, a pleading voice, a building up of emotion, a use of repetition, an ecstatic rumbling conclusion. If the talk wasn’t presented as grounded in science and scientific observation and given public weight by her status by a neuroanatomist, I think most of us would either be moved by the talked or would have simply moved on with a roll of the eyes. It’s interesting and also annoying to see how susceptible we are still to these kind of performances, how much we grasp for meaning.

    What is the purpose of bring out a real human brain with its dangley bits? She could have easily include a clear picture of the brain in one of her slides. But the effect of it was wonderful – the gasps of the audience, the putting on of the gloves, the demonstration that her authority as a scientist licensed her to hold this miraculous organ, the holding it up into the air, her invitation to us to enter her 19th century surgeon’s theater.

    I don’t mean to suggest, of course, that she’s a charlatan. But the talk is not by a scientist and is actually inteclectually uninteresting and scientifically misinformed. It is however an impassioned performance by a woman struggling to shape and express her experience and the desire that the world be a better place, that through understanding there is no separate self we can create a more peaceful and compassionate world. Or maybe it’s just an annoying, cloying, rather egocentric presentation elevated in a unquestioning public discourse.

  29. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

    Her presentation certainly seemed in the style of the great traveling charlatans and revival ministers. I think that’s what stuck me first and foremost about her. Eyes closed, hands raised to the heavens, a pleading voice, a building up of emotion, a use of repetition, an ecstatic rumbling conclusion. If the talk wasn’t presented as grounded in science and scientific observation and given public weight by her status as a neuroanatomist, I think most of us would either be moved by the talked or would have simply moved on with a roll of the eyes. It’s interesting and also annoying to see how susceptible we are still to these kind of performances, how much we grasp for meaning.

    What is the purpose of bring out a real human brain with its dangly bits? She could have easily include a clear picture of the brain in one of her slides. But the effect of it was wonderful – the gasps of the audience, the putting on of the gloves, the demonstration that her authority as a scientist licensed her to hold this miraculous organ, the holding it up into the air, the invitation to us to enter her 19th century surgeon’s theater.

    I don’t mean to suggest, of course, that she’s a charlatan. But the talk is not by a scientist and is actually inteclectually uninteresting and scientifically misinformed. It is, however, an impassioned performance by a woman struggling to shape and express her experience and her desire that the world be a better place, that through understanding there is no separate self we can create a more peaceful and compassionate world.

    Or maybe it’s just an annoying, cloying, rather egocentric presentation elevated in a unquestioning public discourse.

  30. Pingback: The disappearance of Flight 188. – By William Saletan – Slate Magazine « Chauncey Bell Blog

  31. I’ve just had occasion to re-read this, and I’m grateful for the commitment to care and rigor that characterizes he conversation. (Most of it, anyway.) Thanks, Chauncey, for the forum and the provocation.

    To the point. You say “Pasteur, Einstein, Curie steadfastly declined to base their work on evidence.” I see that for Einstein. (The evidence came later.) But Pasteur and Curie were – so I was taught – evidence-based. Can you enlighten?

    Thanks,
    Gil

  32. Pingback: Revised on Problems with “Compumorphizing” « Chauncey Bell Blog

  33. Pingback: I suggest “Jill Bolte Taylor’s Stroke of Insight” and Chauncey Bell’s comment from his blog.

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  35. Jill Bolte was not giving a scientific description of what happened to her. She was re-telling in words, the sensations she underwent during the twenty or more minutes that she experienced a left parietal or temporal stroke. As a psychologist, familiar with the the difficulties of patients attempting to translate trauma-based feelings into words, I found her narative made sense. Her use of parallel and linear computer processing analogies was simplistic, but presumably she had geared her talk to amateurs rather than professionals. If she had been asked to address neurologists and neuropsychologists on what happened to her, I am sure her language would have been much more scientific. The shortcomings of language will always limit a person’s ability to describe what actually happened to them.

  36. The assumption in the original post is that science is the only type of knowledge that there is, and that human experience is irrelevant to humanity. That strikes me as an assumption that ends up turning ourselves and others into objects and things to be observed. Sure, science is great. Hail science! Let’s put the goddess of Reason in Notre Dame again, as they did during the French Revolution. But replicable, universalized results do not exhaust the possibilities of human experience or communication

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  38. Chauncey,
    I am just catching up with your blog today and found this blog enlightening including contested views. Maturana, Verela, Flores also were conversing with Gregory Bateson notions of “Ecology of Mind” and Stafford Beer’s “Global Firm” and many other scientists in “Cybernetics” explorations being birthed through the by the invitation only Macy Conferences. I share this deep exploratory pathway of redesigning the western self in the same manner that your articulate in thinking as a reflexive cognitive epistemology in our humanness, concerns in the notion of “butterscotch” making authentic sense of the encounter in this swept along institutional framing of mythological changelessness in poetry that is 2,500+ years old arising in fundamental mistaken observer error of an “observer” (cognitive autopoietic agent + dynamic temporal biological architecture = Homo sapiens amans amans) is separated from the medium it parachutes into at birth. In the womb there is unity and in western occidental culture there is this pervasive notion of a transcendental soul in a process of individuation as a contest of becoming gods. In all honesty, it appears to me and of course I own my observation in saying this, that this fundamental ‘psychological split’ (Jung) is an error. We can explore poetic archetypes in mythological metaphors forever and it only confuses the human condition. The notion of computer metaphors literally make me sick to my stomach. I submit that the entire field of cognitive cybernetics has been high-jacked by a market economy of new age guru’s claiming there is recipe to improve one’s own self and justify the illness in others.

    Bateson’s ecology of mind and a leading creative thinker in psychiatry especially “schizophrenia” revealed the experience of Perceval’s parachuting as an “identified agent/patient” within a family unity exploring the denial embedded in “emotional contradictions” that become “double binds” in pattern metaphoric stories languaging truth based on the lie of separation. These characterizations of mental illness today if you read the DSM-5 characterize a cultural crises on the verge of collective psychosis. The observer error of experts in psychology have reduced human nature to fatality mechanism based in errors and everyone is ill, imperfect, and needing medicated. What a shame and sham is buying and selling one another short in the reality of learning together.

    I parachuted into this 2,500+ year old Plato’s Cave based on shadows on the wall. The biological unitary epistemology of autopoiesis is not a theory. Rather, a opening to a blank tabula rasa allowing us to question these metaphoric poetic assumptions were “Biology Trumps Politics” (religion, education, economics, technology) is a questioning of representational cultural assumptions that are taken for granted and previously were forbidden to challenge unless you wanted to be burned at the stake by God’s Jury in Plato’s Cave.

    Human ecology based in Bateson’s ecology of mind is all about learning in the encounter within the web of life as a reflexive epistemological act of realization in a unity with nature, not a power over and beyond it. In this moment as a human specie we are facing exponential imminent creative collapsing opportunities. Technology in my assessment has heightened the observer error in a 24/7/365 news cycle reporting the emotional double binds of an assumptions of what is reality that is making everyone in the world ill? The denial of our responsibility and accountability is justified in statistical bullsh$t of a failed leadership in meeting permanent domains of human concerns in a customary of human dignity; reverence, restoration, reframing and recreation. A complaint or appreciative inquiry into what is reality could get you arrested by homeland security. Being a whistle blower gets you fired or imprisoned.

    Our technological anti-social nerds in quantum physics have created a global economy where in 40 years 80% of humanity are unemployed. Then comes the real game changer “Climate Change” in the anthropocene age where to survive and not destroy 3/4 of earth’s biological living systems, the current global energy policy needs to write down $30 trillion in current assets corporate performance engines intend to burn and jobs, jobs, jobs drive the machine. We are in a radical urgent educational crises where over 50% of the world’s population is under 20 years of age. Needless to say, in any crises applying previous unquestioned assumptions as a risk management strategy only aggravates the human condition. The DSM 5 is living proof. Ebola will kill 1.5 million people by January 2015. This morning the first case showed up in Texas. I have been a proponent of quarantining Texas Book Repository since the 8th grade. We have a problem in Houston and it is an internal software error not the hard wired biological mechanism of human nature.

    I am done taking to myself in a padded cell screaming, crying and buying into this political bullsh$t of being an isolated skin encapsulated ego living in psychological splits; cool aid. Zero learning in Bateson’s view is devolving and decoupling from the medium into utter madness. Today more people will commit suicide because they hit the hump mid week, coying skills exhausted, and can’t make it to happy hour on Friday. We are living in lost stable states of historic institutional discourses based in power that have not changed in 2,500+ years. Our human condition is critical requiring collective action and mutual agreement to a solution; not excavating problems living in denial turning children into zombies, the walking dead.

    Level I learning is like the “AA” program after you have drunk yourself into such a stupor that it’s the bottom of the bottle and the end of the rope, and any of false sense of pride is destroyed. I am addict to this 2,500+ year political cool aid and can recount stories forever regarding the emotion contradictions and double binds. Everywhere I go and everyone I listen to is suffering drinking the same cool aid. What I want is a community that has a biological conversation that trumps the mistaken political cool aid. A biological conversation based in the permanent human concerns we enactively embody and care for with children before they start drinking the cool aid in education. I want to have a conversation about full employment as a joyful concern not work harder going nowhere and missing the opportunity for every hour to be happy. I want a community where crying is respected as a courageous act of authenticity and never medicated in this dehumanization industrial cyborg arrogant aggression called market economy demanding my obedience negating human presence.

    Chauncey I still a mess, crazy, broken, indignant and rebellious and going back to work today after a 14 year hiatus. My metaphor is I am a blind man with a cane touching the pavement on the sidewalk, walking backwards, getting hit by lightening bolts, on 5th avenue in NYC. Or I am explorer of the unitary epistemology of autopoiesis since 1984. Level II III IV learning has my full attention today. There is a way out here and escape from Plato’s Cave! Build fires as hunting parties on the edges reframing business maps with a new strategic orientation. I really appreciated “Surfing Toward the Future” and the distinctions offered. My grand daughter Julia at 3 years old said “grandpa you take care of the small problems, and I’ll take care of the big ones.” Amen!

    I saw a picture of Fernando sitting alone at a picnic table in the Chile California Coalition website. We are growing old and there was a sadness I share with him of the difficulty in bringing forth a negotiated order in communicative competency in triadic inquiry and dialog. Thank you Chauncey for being his friend and the years of supporting his dream and imagining a way back into the future. It isn’t over until the fat lady sings!

    Have a great day,
    Mushin

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