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The Attention Span. “Three Striking Stories.”

Today I want to tell three quick stories. I hope they will reveal why I’m so obsessed with a radical and urgent idea.

Separately, I also wanted to flag an article by one of my favorite finance writers, doing one of my favorite things.


“Three
Striking Stories.”

[12 minute read]

“I remember, I remember when I lost my mind
There was something so pleasant about that place
Even your emotions have an echo in so much space”

- Crazy, Gnarls Barkley

Source: Getty Images.

On the morning of December 10, 1996, neuroanatomist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor suffered what is probably now the most famous stroke in history.

A golf ball-sized clot in her brain’s left hemisphere left her unable to walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of her life. And yet she was overcome by an experience she later described as blissfully euphoric; “nirvana.” Her internal monologue also went quiet:

“Total silence. And at first I was shocked to find myself inside of a silent mind. But then I was immediately captivated by the magnificence of the energy around me. And because I could no longer identify the boundaries of my body, I felt enormous and expansive. I felt at one with all the energy that was, and it was beautiful there.”

Fifteen years ago this month, author Lauren Marks suffered a stroke and collapsed in an Edinburgh bar while singing karaoke. She later wrote a fabulous article about her experience (below). Like Bolte Taylor, her more verbal left-hemisphere went offline, and she lost her inner monologue:

“This was not a Quiet I had known before. It was a placid current, a presence more than an absence. Everything I saw or touched or heard pulsed with a marvelous sense of order. I had a nothing mind, a flotsam mind. I was incredibly focused on the present, with very little awareness or interest in my past or future. My entire environment felt interconnected, like cells in a large, breathing organism. To experience this Quiet was to be it.”

These two blissful experiences could easily be interpreted as simply the by-products of damaged minds. But a better explanation is that they are the result of a damaged filter. Our consciousness necessarily filters out an incomprehensibly large amount of sensory stimulus. After their strokes, Bolte Taylor and Marks were separately overcome with the roar of water in a shower and the beauty of leaves on a tree. If we were “tripping” like that all the time out in the natural world, we’d get eaten by wolves pretty quickly.

But the fascinating question raised by these experiences is: why is losing your filter associated with such a wonderful feeling?

My own story hints at why that might be important.


Panic in Paradise.

“The mind is its own place and, in itself can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven.”

- John Milton

In 2017, a few weeks after reading Marks’ story, I was snorkeling in the emerald ocean off Lahaina in Maui. Swimming in deep water usually gives me a slight sense of primal anxiety from having instantly moved from the top of the food chain to the bottom. But this time it just felt like gliding through a warm, silent cathedral, lit by the rays from a hundred stained-glass windows.

Out of nowhere, a sudden, crippling panic attack turned a dream setting into an instant nightmare. It got so bad that a couple of days later I admitted myself to the ER. I was suffering from sharp abdominal pains and the vague sense that my immune system had blown up to five times its normal size. The doctors found absolutely nothing wrong with me. At the time, all I could think about was Marks’ stroke and losing her inner monologue. And I didn’t know why.

Lahaina beach, Maui (panicking banker not pictured). Source: Me.

At the time of my panic attack in Hawaii, I was in a state of internal conflict. I was in a stable job with an excellent salary. But my interests were increasingly being drawn elsewhere. This dissonance increasingly manifested in vague and inexplicable psychosomatic ailments like “brain fog,” anxiety, and bodily pain. Eventually a Functional Medicine doctor suggested I try a three-month elimination diet. This involves eating only very basic foods then slowly reintroducing more problematic ones to better gauge their impact. With all the stimulants removed from my life, I increasingly gained both energy and clarity.

One morning later that year this culminated in the strangest and most wonderful experience of my life. I now tentatively interpret it as a rebellion by my right hemisphere. Like Marks and Bolte Taylor, my internal monologue suddenly went totally mute. My heart-center felt like it had burst open. I was absolutely bathed in what I can only crudely describe as love. Not romantic attraction, but a primal force that was so overwhelming it felt as if it was the very foundation of being. My sensory filter exploded, and I became acutely sensitive to everything around me. As I live in Manhattan, this was crippling. I wasn’t to know it at the time, but this was the beginning of a wildly tumultuous and frequently agonizing period of my life. One day I’ll tell the whole slightly pitiful story.


Science Supports the Strange

Three weird anecdotes don’t mean much, but a long lifetime of research does. These stories far preceded my discovery of Dr. Iain McGilchrist’s revelatory work on the brain’s two hemispheres. The fact that the strangest experiences of my life mapped so closely to his experimental findings helps explain why I’m adamant that his thesis holds the potential to be one of the most important ideas in modern human history. Oxford Professor Charles Foster holds the same opinion of his recent masterpiece The Matter with Things when he describes it as “one of the most important books ever published. And, yes, I do mean ever.”

In short, McGilchrist believes our current accelerating global spiritual, economic, and environmental crises have been caused by the much more limited, but highly verbal, left hemisphere usurping the right. Our right is able to sense the whole picture, both figuratively and in the literal energetic way both Bolte Taylor and Marks described.

McGilchrist is calling for an existentially urgent rebalancing, where the right returns to supervision of the left. It’s why I’ve written so much recently about how to amplify its influence. But the fact that unfiltered right-hemispheric experience has a feeling attached to it is a huge help. Our right hemisphere is much more connected to emotion, sensation in the body, and specifically to our hearts. Perhaps we feel its pull somatically, and it might feel like “filtered” love.

The closer we get to the flow of life, the faster we evolve, the better we feel. Like paddling a boat to the center of a river, we can deliberately orient toward it by balancing our right hemispheric exploratory attention with the left’s individual action. One symptom is what Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi famously and appropriately called “flow,” the optimal human experience. It’s hard to believe evolution would reward us with such a fantastic feeling randomly. This helps us understand the extremely literal truth in Joseph Campbell’s instruction to “follow your bliss.”

But Marks’ and Bolte Taylor’s examples also warn about going too far and becoming a bliss-junkie. Spirituality without action is no use to anyone. Bolte Taylor temporarily forgot how to dial a phone to call for help, and then how to speak when she finally reached someone. Marks temporarily lost her ability to use language and to engage with the world. Regressive spirituality can also have us sitting passively like a cabbage in the lotus position instead of actively utilizing our unique gifts. The left should act in service of the right. This is what is meant by synthesis, by co-creation. It feels great and evolution rewards us for it.

If extreme right-hemispheric lateralization has this flowing, blissful character, the equivalent left-hemispheric experience should feel the opposite. And McGilchrist’s research suggests that it does: “the living flow of time, of seamless experience, is lost; and, cut off from vitality, intuition, emotion, and the body, it becomes static and abstract.” I sadly spent what felt like an eternity in that “anti-flow” state too.

These ideas are therefore of most special relevance to people feeling similarly lost or torn. The way out of that stagnation is to reorient our inner compass to what artificial intelligence researcher Ken Stanley recently called “interestingness.” Not necessarily things that make obvious, rational sense to our limited left hemisphere. Toward feelings not goals.


Answering the call.

If our right hemisphere helps direct our exploratory attention, it would make sense that it would try to direct us all toward stories about hemispheric rebalancing.

Bolte Taylor’s 2008 TED Talk is currently their fifth most popular video ever, with over 28 million views (you can watch it yourself below). Why is there so much interest in the story of a neuroanatomist’s stroke? I believe her talk went inexplicably viral for the same reason I couldn’t stop thinking about Lauren Marks during my Hawaiian crisis.

My own panic attack was a symptom of this conflict. The protective left hemisphere trying to retain control, while the right directed my attention to the life changes that were required. As the urgency increased, it got less subtle. This is the “call to adventure” I believe our entire society is experiencing right now. As I’ve discussed, it’s why so many stories in popular culture now have exactly the same specific “Hero’s Journey” structure. Bolte Taylor explicitly makes this parallel in her recent book Whole Brain Living:

“In the language of the brain, the hero must step out of his own ego-based left-brain consciousness into the realm of his right brain’s unconsciousness. At this point the hero feels connected to all that is, and is enveloped by a sense of deep inner peace.”

Our environment not only helps direct our attention, but it might also signal back to us. One of the key relationships I’ve noticed across almost every domain is that flourishing is directly correlated with the amount of intelligence you credit to things outside of yourself. This might require that you surrender a degree of control to some kind of “external” guiding intelligence. Whatever that is might not simply be unknown, but unknowable. It’s endlessly amusing to watch how this idea absolutely short-circuits so many people’s rational minds. Bolte Taylor has noticed it too:

“This alternate reality of our right brain whereby everything is related is an actual consciousness. But because we cannot define it, see it, touch it, smell it, taste it, or hear it, this parallel world of perception is often minimized, invalidated, and denied by our left-brain counterpart, which only believes in the external world. It is in this realm of the right-brain energetic flow where synchronicities commonly unfold. Yet in the real world, for a strong left brain, those synchronicities are easily dismissed as mere coincidences.”

These mysterious synchronicities are feedback from our environment that we’re on the right path. As Campbell says, “follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where only there were walls.” Doors our right can sense and our left can't.

In the five years since my Hawaiian meltdown, I’ve bumped into every conceivable wall and made every possible mistake. (If you’re interested in more of my story you can listen to the Business Brew podcast below.) But slowly learning to follow my own interests has unpredictably led me to a better place. I inhabit an unfolding flow where I am privileged to finally have the freedom to explore and write about these topics that mean so much to me. But then, it could just be a coincidence.

"Consciousness flows, the body flows; given this, it is hardly surprising that the evolution of the self is such a flow, too. At least the right hemisphere sees that this is the case."

- Dr. Iain McGilchrist


Related Reading, Listening, and Watching.

  • Read. What My Stroke Taught Me in Nautilus (33 minute read).
  • Why read. Self-explanatory. But what was interesting to me re-reading this recently is that she mentioned McGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary three years before I read it. And I don’t recall noticing it at the time.

  • Watch. My Stroke of Insight, by Jill Bolte Taylor for TED (18 minute watch).
  • Why watch. One of the most-watched TED talks ever, where Bolte Taylor tells the story of her stroke and how it changed her life.

  • Listen. My interview with Bill Brewster on the Business Brew (1 hour 35 minute listen. I DID NOT CHOOSE THE TITLE OF THE PODCAST).
  • Why listen. My friend Bill was kind enough to have me on. He wrestled me into marginally more business and markets content than some of my weirder podcast appearances. But the relevance to today’s piece is I also discussed the worst parts of my own personal transition.

Unrelated reading

  • Read. Little Ways the World Works by Morgan Housel (15 minute read).
  • Why read. Morgan is one of my favorite writers in finance. In this piece he conducts what I think is one of the most interesting and useful exercises: identifying ideas and concepts that recur across multiple domains. [My own listicle of 21 Useful Ideas and 1 big one is here].

    • “If you find something that is true in more than one field, you’ve probably uncovered something particularly important. The more fields it shows up in, the more likely it is to be a fundamental and recurring driver of how the world works.”

Have a great weekend!

Tom


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