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Catharsis and the Brain

Listening to Jill Bolte-Taylor – Part 1

Suddenly everyone is talking about Jill Bolte-Taylor. Bolte-Taylor is the brain scientist who observed her own stroke in real time as it happened, and then recovered sufficiently in order to make her insights public. Taking a shower one day in 1996 a blood vessel exploded in the left half of her brain. Language swiftly departed, along with basic cognition. She was barely able to reach the phone to call for help. Years later, linguistic abilities restored, she wrote a book about the experience, My Stroke of Insight. It’s a fascinating read, but the most direct way to get a sense of Jill Bolte-Taylor is to check out her TED talk.

According to Bolte-Taylor the two lobes of our brain are radically different from each other in how they operate and what they tell us about the world and our place within it. The left brain is linear and methodical, all about the past and the future. Sensory data is processed in serial fashion, categorizing details out of the immense flood of experience into an actionable plan to achieve concrete aims. In the grip of the left brain we experience ourselves as solid beings, separate from all others and clearly defined in sequential time, which forms an orderly narrative. The right brain, by contrast, processes data in parallel, and is oriented toward this present moment. Under the sway of the right brain we view ourselves as intimately bound to everything that arises in the field of experience as it shifts and changes from moment to moment.

It’s easy to see how the Darwinian struggle for survival would have conditioned us to over-identify with our left brains. Paleolithic ancestors given to feeling too much one-ness in a world full of ravenous cave bears did not live long enough to procreate. But it’s equally clear that the gravest threats currently confronting us are all byproducts of this imbalance in the direction of the left brain. Nuclear war, environmental degradation, these dangers all arise from the demonic aspect of the left brain with its mania for control. We are victims of our own success hurtling toward a left brain precipice, and only a quick U-turn back toward balance can save us.

Bolte-Taylor’s account of exactly how it felt to be conveyed abruptly from left brain mode to right brain mode is full of ultra-modern science talk, but also resonates back through the insights of the great mystical traditions. Students of Buddhism, Gnostic Christianity, Kabala, Sufism or non-Dual Hinduism will recognize the two modes of consciousness Bolte-Taylor describes. She herself does not mince words about what she experienced the day her left brain shut down, calling it Nirvana. And because Bolte-Taylor is an empirical scientist her insights vault the barriers that typically inhibit such ideas in our culture of materialism, and this is hopeful indeed. Along with other recent collaborations between brain scientists and contemplative practitioners, Bolte-Taylor’s popularity offers more evidence that a synthesis of western and eastern insights may truly be forming. As a species we seem to be on the cusp of transforming insight, like a person with a magic word on the tip of his tongue.

Those familiar with this column will be on the lookout for a tie in to theater, and, sure enough, here it comes. The kind of theater I’m drawn too – tragic drama – has always been a way to collectively examine these two poles of experience, and how they relate to each other. Somehow, the Greek tragedians, writing at the beginning of “civilization” detected the imbalance described above. The tragic hero, drunk on the delusions of the self hurtles full speed toward a shattering crisis. Too much form; not enough “emptiness.” Too much existence, not enough Being. And then, after the armor of the self has been stripped away, all that’s left is…the present moment.

From this point of view, the aim of tragic drama is to bring the protagonist from deep in the domain of the narrative (left brain) across to fully inhabit the present moment (right brain) being shared by the audience. We call that arrival catharsis. Catharsis is the movement out from under left brain domination via psychological catastrophe experienced in attention. Catharsis is the completion of sequential time, of narrative, and beyond lies the open space of the formless, timeless present. Oedipus completes his story but lives on, afflicted not only by blindness but also by wisdom.

On the one hand there is the story being re-enacted on stage, the protagonist caught in a sequential web of action and reaction. On the other is the on-going present in which this re-enactment unfolds, a present that includes us as well, observing from our seats. The revelation is by design collective, rooted in non-separation. It’s not just Oedipus or Lear having the experience up there on stage, in other words – it’s our experience too, in the audience. At the moment of maximum emotional charge, spectator and spectacle are united finally, and there is no separation. All of us breathe together in a moment of presence, with awe, pity and terror holding us there, aloft.


  1. Peter (aka-The Bliss Brothers) says:

    Guy…thanks soooooo much for sharing this. what a fabulous idea…..so connected to the yogic path we are practicing.

  2. Great article. What do you think of modern plays that seem to be tragic without catharsis, waiting for godot for example?

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