So many people have sent me the link to the TED talk given by Jill Bolte Taylor (transcript here). I watched it and was a bit curious as to why people are so impressed with this 18 minutes. She is a good performer but not a good scientist. Some thoughts from others are below. What did you think of the video?
From a professor:
It is unfortunate that Jill Boltes dragged out the left-brain/right-brain stuff as an explanation for her experiences since the brain does not work that way. In other words, while the sequence of events might have been somewhat different, she would probably have had the same sorts of experiences had the stroke occurred in the right cerebral hemisphere rather than the left.
The only reason I can think of that she used the left-brain/right-brain metaphor is that she must have gone to school in the 1970s when we really did think that the
brain worked like that, and then didn't read anything relevant after that (that happens more than you think in academia). By 1980 it had become obvious that the brain didn't work like that even though the left-brain/right-brain distinction persisted in new age books and popular culture for quite some time after that. If you don't believe me that there is no left-brain/right-brain duality then read the following two articles:
Yates, F. E. (1980). Two minds about brain asymmetries. American Journal of Physiology, 238, R1-R2.
Ellenberg, L. & Sperry, R. W. (1980). Lateralized division of attention in the commissurotomized and intact brain. Neuropsychologia, 18, 411-418. [Note here that Sperry was one of the people who STARTED the left-brain/right-brain metaphor in the first place.]
Also I'm not sure why she misleads viewers about the interconnections between the cerebral hemispheres, which are multiply connected, most notably through the brain stem and massa intermedia in addition to the corpus callosum. The problem is that that sort of professional blundering discredits the rest of what she says for those who do know brain physiology. And that is unfortunate because of the rich layers of experiences that she has during her near-death experience.
So, to show what worries me about Taylor’s talk, I will say something about what I think is going on in the talk. Her narrative is constructed as a collection of metaphors, building from factual beginnings about her stroke and her experience of the stroke, moving to a description of her experience that is couched in metaphors that look like facts, but are not, and leading to a speculation about the construction of the human being and human experience, expressed as a declaration. 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. . . .
I recommend you read the whole post.
And finally from a brain scientist:
That she still wants to reduce her experience, including the spiritual part, to hemispheric function is unnerving ... pun intended.
Not all the lectures were great. A few were just slightly dull, but one I positively hated was Jill Bolte Taylor talking about her experience of surviving a massive stroke. This was one of the first to be podcast (they are chosen gradually over the year) and is proving highly popular - so much so that I keep getting emails from people telling me to watch it (I was there and I don't want to see it again thank you!). Her description of becoming incapable of speech and coordinated action was absolutely gripping, but she claimed to be a neuroscientist (frequently) and then spouted misleading gibberish about right brain/left brain differences, and how she (an inner self?) watched what happened to her brain. I was not the only one squirming in my seat at the time.
. . . In the great wide word of the web, and with easy access to podcasts, false ideas may thrive because of fine presentation or moving emotional manipulation. Taylor's was precisely that.
Note (added April 14, 2008, 9:05 AM Mountain): Another critical post about the Jill Bolte Taylor talk.
Note (added April 24, 2008, 11:35 AM Mountain): More critical posts.
- Mind Hacks
You can almost hear the sound of a thousand cognitive scientists gritting their teeth as she describes the supposed functions of each cerebral hemisphere and probably the sound of some of them fainting when she describes the "deep inner peace circuitry" of the right hemisphere.
- Dangerous Intersection
Things aren’t as simple as Bolte Taylor portrays them to be, and it was annoying to me to see and hear her fearlessly marching forward with her sweeping claims (of what it is to be a “left brained person” for instance). In the end, I was annoyed with Bolte Taylor, despite her passionate way of speaking and her obvious talent for drawing us into her story.
Note (added May 1, 2008, 2:34 PM Mountain): Today it was announced that Taylor is included in the Time magazine list of the top 100 of the world's most influential people.
Note (added May 12, 2008, 2:00 PM Mountain): Isn't the pop culture interesting? Looks like this woman is going to be a part of Oprah's Soul Series (watch here) and that Viking has purchased her memoir My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey. Do you think Jill Bolte Taylor got the science right in her book?
Note (added July 7, 2008, 2:30 PM Mountain): More about Jill Bolte Taylor over at Brains on Purpose™: More words of caution: Are you a wise mediator or a woolly mystic?.
Note (added July 8, 2008, 3:25 PM Mountain): Sorry to see that a blogger refers people to the Bolte Taylor video "[f]or a wonderful description of how the right brain functions."
Note (added October 2, 2010): Well, I guess we could see this coming, hm? Now it looks as if Ron Howard will direct a movie based on Taylor's story.