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July 01, 2022
Mysteries of the Mind: The Brain's Hidden Nirvana

BY BEN THOMAS

On December 10, 1996, Harvard-trained brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor experienced a mind-altering voyage that transformed her understanding of consciousness and the nature of reality. And she returned to tell the tale.

What kind of psychedelic trip did Dr. Taylor experience? Try reading these quotes from her story, and guessing for yourself:

“I looked down at my body and I thought, ‘Whoa, I'm a weird-looking thing.’” “My arm blended with the wall, and all I could detect was this... energy.”

“I felt at one with all the energy that was, and it was beautiful there.”

“My spirit soared free, like a great whale gliding through the sea of silent euphoria.”

What’s your guess—LSD? Psilocybin? Ayahuasca?

Place your bets, then scroll down to discover the answer.

 

Dr. Taylor’s ordeal began when a blood vessel exploded in the left half of her brain, setting off a stroke. Over the next four hours, she lost her ability to walk, talk, or remember anything of her life. She became, in her own words, “An infant in a woman’s body.” For a while, her conscious awareness lost touch with external reality altogether.

Yet her consciousness did somehow persist. And when surgeons finally removed the clot from her brain, she returned with a tale of Mind liberated from Matter: a “sea of silent euphoria” where she “found nirvana.” Her journey has since inspired a TEDTalk, multiple books, a ballet, an orchestral performance, and an Oprah Lifeclass.

But Dr. Taylor’s story offers far more than enchanting imagery and a life-affirming message. In many ways, it radically challenges conventional ideas about what psychotropic experiences are, what they mean, and how they can arise. So let’s take a deeper dive into Dr. Taylor’s “stroke of insight,” and see what answers it holds.

When surgeons finally removed the clot from her brain, she returned with a tale of Mind liberated from Matter.

A brain-body breakdown

When Dr. Taylor awoke on December 10, her mind was still intact—but a "brain freeze"-like pain pounded behind her left eye: the first sign that a blood vessel had exploded in her brain’s left hemisphere. Not yet realizing the seriousness of her situation, she decided to start her morning workout and try to walk off the pain.

As she pumped away on her cardio glider, the stroke’s effects started to kick in. She found herself staring down at her hands, which looked like primitive claws, and thinking, “Whoa, I'm a weird-looking thing.” Her consciousness was shifting into a third-person perspective—one in which she was watching herself, like an alien observing from space. (THC veterans may be able to relate!)

But Dr. Taylor’s journey was only beginning. She stumbled into the bathroom with jerky, ill-coordinated movements, as if each separate muscle was on manual control. “What’s wrong with me?” she asked herself—but the stroke hit the “mute” button: her mental chatter went totally silent. At the same time, she found she could no longer sense the outlines of her body, which blended with the external world in a single boundless flow of energy.

She later described the feeling as “euphoric.”

“Between two planes of reality”

A moment later, her brain’s alarm system kicked in, yanking her back to the present. She knew something was seriously wrong. Suddenly it hit her: "I'm having a stroke!”—and her instinctual reaction was one that every true explorer of consciousness will understand: “Wow! This is so cool! How many brain scientists have the opportunity to study their own brain from the inside out?" 

Even so, Dr. Taylor recognized she needed medical help—and the blood clot in her brain was still expanding. Over the next 45 minutes, she drifted in and out of euphoric “la-la land,” losing her ability to read names and numbers, to dial the phone, and to understand spoken language. Yet somehow she managed to reach a colleague, who called an ambulance to her home. 

As Dr. Taylor was rushed to the hospital, her mind became “suspended between two planes of reality.” In one plane were agonizing pain, chaotic sounds, and raw terror; in the other plane, her consciousness seemed to expand beyond time and space—beyond any scale her body could ever contain. Freed from all constraints, she floated in a “sea of silent euphoria.” 

“Nirvana,” she recalls with awe. “I found nirvana.”

The mind’s ultimate journey

Two weeks later, doctors removed a blood clot the size of a golf ball from Dr. Taylor’s left brain hemisphere. She returned with a tale as spiritual as it is scientific—one that bears an uncanny resemblance to psychedelic voyages, and to many accounts of near-death experiences. 

Could Dr. Taylor’s story provide clues about the true nature of these voyages? It’s a possibility worth investigating, to say the least. Still, Dr. Taylor remained alive and (at least partially) conscious throughout her journey—and she’s made it clear that she doesn’t interpret her experience as evidence of a soul or an afterlife. Instead, she found her paradise right here on earth. “Nirvana exists right now,” she says, “[and] we can get there.”

Does her experience mean normal brain function somehow holds our consciousness back from its full potential?

Does her experience mean normal brain function somehow holds our consciousness back from its full potential? That would line up closely with the Buddhist teaching that linear, verbal, ego-oriented thinking traps us in a painful world of illusory concepts—and that by letting go of those concepts, we can set our minds free to experience reality’s boundless flow. But it doesn’t take a brain hemorrhage to achieve this state of mind—just patience and practice.

However, Dr. Taylor’s story hints at an even more intriguing idea. While her ordeal doesn’t prove anything (one way or the other) about life after death, it does suggest that the experience of dying may be more peaceful, even blissful, than we often assume.

Maybe, in the words of psychedelic researcher Stanislav Grof, death really is “The Ultimate Journey” of the mind—one last thrilling adventure in altered consciousness before the lights go out. If that’s true, then perhaps in our final moments on earth, we each get our very own glimpse of nirvana.


Ben Thomas is a journalist and novelist who's lived in 40+ countries. He runs the publishing company House Blackwood, and produces the podcast Horrifying Tales of Wonder! Follow him on Twitter at @writingben.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
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