Friday, March 14, 2008

Video: Jill Bolte Taylor at TED

Jill Bolte Taylor, an Indiana University School of Medicine neuroanatomist, gave a fascinating talk at TED in February. (The video is embedded below, here is the direct link). While I certainly think the video is worth watching (otherwise I wouldn't feature it here), I have a couple of serious reservations. It's clear from the video that Taylor's experience was an intensely emotional one and, let's be frank, science and intense emotions don't go so well together. It certainly made me worry when she started going on about "nirvana", it annoyed me that she dramatically oversimplified the very nuanced, complicated and still emerging picture of hemispherical specialization in the brain, and it frustrated me generally that she seems to let her emotions get in the way of her science. (To be clear: emotions are important and I have no problem with them being expressed, even at TED. But we should try our best not to let our emotions influence our intellectual positions - that's what I'm criticizing Taylor for, not the sheer fact of being emotional).

See also: Wired's article on Taylor's TEDTalk.


  1. Thanks for the rational and critical response. I am in a debate with Thomas as to whether Bolte-Taylor was being woo woo and New Agey in her piece or was describing it all from the "right brain's eye view".

    Even if she s persuaded about the mystical one-ness etc etc, I loved her presentation's focus on how so much (I'd say all) of what the mind is the brain does.

    Could you see someone like Sam Harris or Ann Druyan speaking in similar terms about these feelings resulting from similar brain activity, and how "real" (meaning genuine but not based on reality) they are?

  2. Thanks DJ, your support is appreciated! :-)

    I honestly do think she's letting her emotions get the better of her and several of her purely empirical statements (about specialization in the brain, for example) are flat out wrong, or grossly oversimplified.

    I can't say I'm a big fan of Harris' position on this kind of thing, and I doubt Druyan (or Sagan himself) would endorse Taylor's stance.

    So, yes, I think she's engaging in a bit of woo. Understandable given what she went through, but woo nonetheless. (Having experienced something directly might be a boon, but it could also be a burden: it's a unique kind of bias. Carol Tavris would have a field day).

  3. 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.

  4. MY STROKE OF INSIGHT was ranked #5 in all books sold on Amazon today and #1 in Memoirs above even Barbara Walters' memoir. Babs had been promoting her book for months in advance and Dr. Taylor's book was self-published.

    Then Oprah recommended it. There's the Power of Now, and then there's the Power of Oprah!!

    "My Stroke of Insight" is out in Hardcover now for less than the old paperback edition. Amazon has it for 40% off.

  5. well... how can you say that emotions have no place in science. Its what drives it, what drives us a human beings, passion, intuition, wonder... that you want the dry part is fine - but seriously don't you think profound scientific discoveries are experienced as a deeply emotional journey... what planet do you come from?