From Neurons to Nirvana … a scientific experience of cosmic proportions

On Dec. 10, 1996, Jill Bolte Taylor woke up to a pounding pain behind her left eye, what she described as “the kind of caustic pain you get when you bite into ice-cream.“  Gradually, over the next four hours, she watched as, one by one, her brain functions, speech, movement and comprehension began to leave her. She had suffered a stroke …


Each year, nearly three-quarter of a million people suffer a stroke in North America alone. What was unique about Jill Taylor is not that she was and still is a renowned neurobiologist, whose life is dedicated to the study of the human brain, but it is the profound experience that it left her with, and the change it has made in her life and her work.

It took eight years for her to “fully recover”, as she puts it, and in February, 2008 she recounted her experience in an eighteen-minute lecture at the cutting-edge TEDtalks conference in Monterey, California.

In that presentation, Taylor presents herself at the opening as the quintessential neuroscientist, giving a brief but rather academic overview of the hemispheres of the brain and the scientific classifications of their various neurological functions.

It’s not until she treads into the depths of her personal experience that the transformative weight of that life-changing morning is revealed. What she proceeds to narrate is a tale of experience that is both heart-warming and though-provoking. The yogi would easily recognize her sensation of the dissolution of her ego-self into the expansive state of universal one-ness. As she describes it, “I found nirvana. I remember thinking that there is no way that I can squeeze the enormousness of myself back inside this tiny little body.”

Perhaps the full scope of it all was not truly absorbed by the hundreds of people, scientists, media personalities and folks from all walks of life who listened intently with reserve while she showered them with the profound emotion of her experience.

That’s no surprise. After all, what she was attempting to illustrate is an experience that, by its very nature, defies description. An incident that some of a purely scientific bent may no doubt attribute solely to the firing or misfiring of neurons and other biological processes, but an experience that the yogis would certainly appreciate as something much more… one that few today can appreciate or even approximate… what Taylor herself describes as a “tremendous gift”.

In the end, she speaks the profound truth that lies at the very heart of the practice of yoga: “I realized that if I have found nirvana, then anyone who is alive can find nirvana… I pictured a world filled with beautiful, peaceful, loving, compassionate people who know that they could come to this space at any time, and that they could purposely choose to step to the right of their left hemispheres and find this peace.”

About the Author:

Yogacharya is the director of International Yogalayam,

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