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A World Without Words

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chalk board (Our United Villages/flickr)

One morning, neurologist Jill Bolte Taylor woke up with a headache. A blood vessel then burst inside her left hemisphere, and silenced all the brain chatter in her head. She was left with no language. No memories. Just sensory intake, and an all-encompassing feeling of joy.

Comments [18]

Laurie C.

I'm surprised that no one's yet mentioned the similarities between this experience and the experience of ingesting psychedelic drugs.

Why is it that we find stories like Taylor's fascinating, similar religious experiences inspiring, but when someone finds the same thing during a drug experience it's a bunch of hippie nonsense? If a person comes to this same brain state after fasting and chanting for three days, why is that any more real or acceptable than someone who reaches the same brain state via an ingested chemical?

May. 30 2013 10:52 AM

I am just wondering, does science explain what Jill may have experienced?

May. 27 2013 10:29 PM
Bruce Adamson from Greensburg, PA

After listening to Ms. Taylor's description of a wordless reality, I noticed a remarkable similarity to the feelings that people describe when they've had a near-death experience: a total sense of joy, a deep sense of peace and contentment, a connection to all things. These same people often allude to those feelings as a sign that there's some type of after-life. Could it be, however, that when someone is near death, the part of their brain that deals with language temporarily shuts down, causing them to experience the same sensations that Ms. Taylor did?

May. 19 2013 09:16 AM
Charles from Portland

Wow. Radiolab TOTALLY dropped the ball on this one. How on earth can you have a segment featuring Jill Bolte Taylor and her ‘stroke of insight’ and not bring up meditation? Are you kidding me? Is it lost on the Radiolab hosts that millions and millions of people all over the world are meditating to in fact try and get closer to what Jill experienced? It’s not lost on Jill, incidentally. They just did a really bad job of putting this piece together.

From Buddhism to Daoism to Vedic Hinduism to even perhaps early contemplative Christianity, much of what we’re trying to do via practice amounts to attempting to shut the damn left hemisphere off a bit, to get back to a state of blissful pre-language existence. The Daoists call this wei wu wei, which translates roughly as easy action without action, or perhaps, effortless life without thinking.

Language entraps us in narratizing. This nonstop chattering monkey is where our sense of being a separate ‘Self’ comes from, which is also, incidentally, where the bulk of our psychological suffering comes from. Meditation, be it Zen or TM, is mostly about trying to detach yourself from this nonstop, psychologically taxing mental chatter. This allows you to rest in that nonjudgmental, nondiscriminating state of ‘just being’ that Jill described as pure joy, as being connected to and with everything. It’s as though the brain finds language addictive, and highly so. Meditation works by allowing us to take a respite from our conditioned addiction to language and our over-identification with our ‘thoughts.’ It’s like a vacation from the left hemisphere, a distressing detox.

I’m very disappointed that what could have been a fascinating interview was handled so poorly.

May. 18 2013 05:02 PM
Beatrice from Oregon

The state she describes cannot be held on to -- but it can be visited at any moment, in the now. For more understanding of this kind of awakening, see the teachings of Gangaji, or Mooji. The binary choice set forth in the segment is false. You need not have no thoughts, you only need to understand the relationship of your true self to those thoughts or chatter.

May. 17 2013 12:17 AM
dffjuui8oll from ohio

fehrt gvbh[;plokijunybrfvtre

Feb. 19 2013 11:22 AM
Grace Hinds from Houston, TX

This reminds me of an "ego collapse". The loss of self, and thus, awareness to the whole. Beautiful.

Jul. 02 2012 12:28 AM
@wQueens7 from Queens, NY

Some Haikus that I wrote on twitter while I was walking my dog listening to your show.
I loved the section on the woman with the stroke.

A. Language is prison/
Jailing experiences/
Away from our souls/

B. Language enables/
Thinking previously thought/
Beyond human ken/

C. "Correcting" language/
Erases problematic/
Human thought patterns/

D. Mother7ucqing words/
Make revolutionary/
Thinking more possible/

E. Propriety kills/
Human struggle from below/
Keeping "them" on top/

F. The Implications/
Of language's importance/
Are lost on the rich/

Jul. 10 2011 11:08 PM

Now we need a Radio Lab Program to explore and examine meditation and how some of us try to reach that place, that void with the absence of thought and words to can that clarity to achieve that oneness with the our surroundings our connectivity to every thing around us. And were some of us do seem to reach that place.

Jul. 09 2011 08:45 AM

As I just discovered Radiolab, I am late to this conversation, but I happen to also be listening to Eckhert Tolle's Power of Now and I agree with Jeanne in regards to Bolte-Taylor's description. Tolle describes being in the now as experiencing everything with "no mind", no internal conversation or thought about it, just experiencing it. And he says that you find a connection to all things and a freedom from self (or ego), just as Bolte-Taylor said so well. cool huh?

Mar. 25 2011 09:12 AM
su from South Africa

Firstly may I say that I discovered you two weeks ago and it was one of life's better introductions.
My kids and I listen to it as part of our unschooling and find it an absolute mine of information and perceptions that we would not normally have access to.

This particular podcast raised the question for me personally of whether I would rather be in languageless nirvana or stressed and functioning in the real world.

Tough call that.

Thanks for a great show.

Mar. 18 2011 04:15 AM
Indigo Dingo from Perth, Australia

A particularly bad migraine will put me in this situation of not having language or being able to construct thought. Apart from the blistering headache, I agree it can be a serene state.

Feb. 03 2011 01:10 AM

I was struck my the comments about having no words and therefore thoughts and a resulting sense of total joy. It seems to me that the the thing that makes us uniquely human can also make us miserable! Kind of a scary "thought." I think I shall go meditate and empty my mind!

Sep. 26 2010 06:55 PM
Jeanne Blue from dc

It surprises me that you aired this compelling story without mentioning Eckhart Tolle or 'presence', the state of awareness that so many of us strive for.

On my local station this morning this show is being followed by a conversation with a Buddhist. What's the sign for irony?

Sep. 19 2010 07:30 AM
crayzys from crayzys.blogspot

The 'overthinking' mentioned described a phenomena I thought was my abnormality. Wonder if the science of Relaxation Response by Dr. Herbert Benson could allow us to reach Jill Bolte Taylor's nirvana state?

Sep. 13 2010 05:23 AM

Jill's description of feeling connected to everything/not knowing where she ended and where other things began when she had no words strikes me as totally accurate.

For reasons unknown, I only said 5 words until I was 4 years old. When I finally did speak, it was in a relatively complex sentence. Boom. Just like that. My poor mother was stunned. *I* of course was confused as to why it was such a big deal. I had not yet learned that mom and I were not the same person. I had been saying sentences in my mind, and she seemed to respond to my "thoughts" because, well... moms are good guessers. I had no idea that words had to be spoken aloud. As far as I could tell, hearing my moms words and thinking my own words were the same thing.

The memory of that event - and also how I thought of things before and after - has been completely searing my whole life. I guess it touches on both Ms. Bolte Taylor's story and Ildefonso's. ;)

Sep. 02 2010 06:06 PM
Anne Wayman from San Diego, CA

Wow - yes, as Linda suggests, meditation can lead to a certain type of wordlessness - it might be the same. And as a writer my mind is playing with this in some interesting ways.

Thanks so much!

Aug. 12 2010 12:44 PM
Linda Pilgrim

I think I have felt what this might be like--for only brief milliseconds at a time. For example, occasionally, when I have painted or tried mindfulness meditation. I think I have felt what this state of being feels like, but it's impossible to hold onto.

Aug. 09 2010 11:41 PM

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