discontinuous neural changes and transcendence

I’ve been thinking of your comments in light of Jill Bolte Taylor’s comments about her stroke. Her description of what it was like to have her left-brain functions blocked reminds me of descriptions I’ve heard about what it’s like to experience transcendance. How do you think her stroke experience relates to meditation?

I’ve read Taylor’s book. It seemed to contradict itself in places, but that could be for a number of reasons. She is great.

Generally the brain seems to tune itself through complex networks of recurrent excitation and inhibition of many, many submodules. Locally and globally, opponent processes are firing all the time, which allows for finely tuned and fast adaptive control.

Both a stroke and “classical buddhist enlightenment” seem to temporarily or permanently knock out one or both sides of the excitation/inhibition innervating  particular submodules.

So, a stroke and “enlightenment” are similar in terms of the large, discontinuous changes that they can cause, which might put particular submodules permanently into “overdrive” or “underdrive.” And that could greatly change the content and dynamics of conscious experience and behavior.

In terms of the specific submodules being targeted by both Taylor’s stroke and by meditation or “enlightenment,” I could make a reasoned argument, but it would only be speculation. (One could match up Taylor’s medical records with functional neuroanatomy and meditation/fMRI/EEG literature, too…)

For whatever it’s worth, Taylor’s experience doesn’t seem to match most of the end-game descriptions that I’ve read. Her experience reads more like transient states that meditators sometimes go through (minus the most debilitating aspects of her experience). In the traditional texts and from modern teachers you get a continual litany of “Ok, yeah, that must of been really intense, but that’s not ‘enlightenment.’ … Nope, not that either. Nope. … Nope. … Nope. … Nope. …”

Personally, I’m most interested in how meditation alters “finely tuned and fast adaptive control,” in very specific ways; getting insight into all the slippery ways I fool myself; and deliberately using the contents of consciousness more effectively. I am wary of “the big stuff,” of poorly controlled, discontinuous changes in neural activity or anything that would interfere with my ability to carefully track self and world.

I think there can be value in “peak experiences,” though, as long as they’re properly interpreted, because they can make you aware of how vast the space of possible ways you can relate to the world is, and possibly give you more choice and flexibility in how you relate to the world in the future.

I am a fan of legitimate (oh, the arrogance!) profundity, meaning, grace, transcendence, being humbled and “broken open,” communion, and so much more, too.

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4 thoughts on “discontinuous neural changes and transcendence

  1. Carrie Joy

    “For whatever it’s worth, Taylor’s experience doesn’t seem to match most of the end-game descriptions that I’ve read. Her experience reads more like transient states that meditators sometimes go through. . . . from . . teachers you get a continual litany of ‘Ok, yeah, that must of been really intense, but that’s not enlightenment. … Nope, not that either. Nope. … Nope. … Nope. … Nope. …’ ”

    Thanks for that explanation, I’d been wondering what experienced meditators would say about that.

    “I am wary of ‘the big stuff,’ of poorly controlled, discontinuous changes in neural activity or anything that would interfere with my ability to carefully track self and world.”

    I recently had an experience that was quite memorable to me, if hard to describe. I had been reading about the fundamental attribution error and other biases, and then went out for a walk. I found myself filled with a sensation of sameness, of belonging, regardless of how different the people around me might seem; that things that might seem different about them are really just different situation or resources (even if including genes), which, if I had, would make me be more similar to them, and vice versa. … that the differences that seemed so salient were largely just a roll of the dice. This is far too wordy to convey the experience; it was wordless and felt, rather than cognitive and analytical. Just saying to myself, “I am like the person I am looking at except for a few instances of chance” does not create the sensation. The result of having that experience was a freeing feeling that allowed me to be more effective for the duration and a while afterwards. It let me use my energy in the pursuit of “deliberately using the contents of consciousness more effectively” because there was less bandwidth being used up in self-protection. Taylor’s description reminds me of my experience, but I wonder if, since this is new to me, I am overgeneralizing. Does her description sound very different to you from mine?

    Reply
    1. Mark

      >> Does her description sound very different to you from mine?

      I’m not sure. :-) I think I certainly resonate sometimes with the experience you’re describing. Are you asking because you’re not sure if your experience is “legitimate,” “allowed,” “true” …?

      My advice would be own it, enjoy it, use it, just hold your interpretation of it open to revision forever… Is that helpful? Don’t let anyone else pronounce judgment on your own inner experience! The final call or final non-call is yours…

      Matching up two people’s experiences usually has to be done with a long, careful conversation because lots of experiences sound similar in words but aren’t, necessarily. I think it’s usually not possible to pin down “one off” experiences. But stuff that’s repeatable or protocols that seem to lead lots of people to have the same experiences are easier to work with.

      Lab experiments involving inner experience are a lot easier to pin down, but life is usually too complicated for that, I think.

      Reply
  2. Carrie Joy

    I didn’t have a conscious reason for asking, but trying to reconstruct it after the fact, I would say I think I wondered if Taylor’s experience was worth trying to repeat. (Not the stroke!) But maybe trying to silence the chatter of verbal thinking might briefly turn off the part of the brain that differentiates between self and other. It might not be enlightenment, but it does sound at the very least refreshing. And I wonder if having had my own experience that could be considered transcendental might give me something specific to aim for. It certainly felt like something I want to repeat. I find it interesting that just remembering the thoughts that preceded it do not cause the same feeling to recur.

    Reply
  3. Mark

    If a particular experience is calling out to me, I go after it again. If I have a vague sense of an experience I might want, I head vaguely in that direction, over time. :)

    >> I find it interesting that just remembering the thoughts that preceded it do not cause the same feeling to recur.<<

    Yeah, sometimes you can line up all the inner tumblers again really quickly and get the lock to open. Other times, it's "just" an intense, initial experience and you have to put in a lot of work to experience it again (and sometimes that “work” is learning how to surrender and get out of the way)–and it comes back as more of a satisfying background hum than an overt experience.

    Reply

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