The neuroscience of mysticism

If you walk down Las Ramblas in Barcelona, there's a section of the boulevard, in between the bird-sellers and the flower-stalls, that is filled with mimes. There's usually five or ten of them, standing there like statues, waiting for someone to drop a coin.

I remember one of them, on my last visit there, was a man standing on a pedestal. The left half of him was dressed in a suit, holding a suitcase in his left hand, with a ball and chain around his left ankle. And the right side of him was dressed like a hippy, with flip-flops, bermuda shorts, thai-dye shirt and long, hippy hair.

If you put a coin in this man's cup, he did a little dance and shook his right hand as if in liberation. Then he bent forward and handed you a note, which said something like 'Free your mind from the tyranny of the left hemisphere'. And that was it. I found his little dance so amusing I put three or four coins in his cup.

I always thought he was just an amusing crank. But it seems like there might be more wisdom to his folly than first appeared.

I have been reading about a new book called A Stroke of Insight, by the neuro-anatomist Jill Bolte-Taylor. Jill had a stroke eight years ago, caused by a blood clot in the left hemisphere of her brain. Showing amazing awareness and courage, she used the opportunity to observe as a scientist what was happening to her.

She observed that the blood clot seemed to silence the chatter of her left hemisphere, and liberated the activity of her right hemisphere. And she found it wonderful and, dare I say it, mystical.

What do these two hemispheres do? She says: "If you look at the brain, you can see that the right hemisphere and the left hemisphere are physically almost completely separate. They process information differently, they think about different things, they care about different things and have different personalities."

"The right hemisphere is focused on the moment, on right here, right now. It learns through sensory information - how the moment feels and tastes, through imagery and movement. It is connected to the energy all around us. In the moment, we are all brothers and sisters."

"The left hemisphere thinks methodically. It is about taking information from the present moment, picking out details and categorizing them. It sorts information from the past, and projects it into the future. It thinks in language. It is the little voice that says to me 'I am', and 'I need to do this and that'. As soon as it says that, I'm separate from the energy flow of the moment, and separate from others."

When Jill had her stroke, the chatter of her left brain was silenced, and she had what was clearly a mystical experience: "I found Nirvana. I was totally disconnected from the usual brain chatter, I felt free of 37 years of emotional baggage, I was filled with wonder at the energy all around me, and felt a profound sense of peacefulness. I felt like a genie let out of the bottle, and I thought there was no way I could squeeze the enormousness of myself back into my body."

What convinced her to come back, to get better, was the thought that she could help explain our brains to us, and explain to us how we could all choose, at any moment, to leave the egotistic chatter of the left brain and step into that great cathedral of the right brain.

Inspiring stuff. As some journalists have pointed out, her experience sounds very much like others' accounts of near-death experiences - the sense of oneness, of expanse, the desire to come back and tell others. I had a similar experience myself, when I fell off a mountain, knocked myself unconscious and broke my leg. When I came to, I spoke gobbledeegook (the left hemisphere was perhaps suspended), and felt filled with peace and oneness with the universe.

Jill's ideas remind me William James' attempt to find a scientific explanation for religious emotions, and also of the work of neuroscientist Richard Davidson, who took brain scans of Buddhist novices and of monks as they were meditating. He discovered significantly more 'gamma waves' in the advanced monks' left pre-frontal cortex (supposedly the site of happiness) than in the right pre-frontal cortex (supposedly the site of anxiety). So is the left side the baddie or the goodie?

Well, in any case, I think Jill is certainly right that we can train ourselves to step out of the ego-chatter, and remind ourselves of the simple wonder and beauty of existence, which is far more amazing than our career or whatever. We can bring ourselves back to a sense of wonder and oneness, and we can develop this sense, and broaden it.

Here's a talk Jill gave about her experience at TED: