What Do Michael Phelps and Jill Bolte Taylor Have in Common?


I pose this comparative think as today, a very special day in the U.S., when we pick our nation’s leader to take us forward into this new century, I look back over the last year’s responses to SpaceSuit Yoga.com and marvel at the interest that Michael Phelps and Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor have stirred within the online community! In light of the press and audience commentary that covers these two American heroes, I have no problem nominating both Phelps and Dr. Taylor as role models for neuro-leadership.

That’s right, if one takes the premise and profile of neuro-leadership put forward in recent NY and Sydney NeuroLeadership Summits (and as reported on this website), both Phelps and Dr. Taylor model the behavior of one who achieves success by way of brain-based approaches to problem solving, especially in two ways:

1) the rigorous, consistent use of attention to problem-solving by means of task-oriented solutions;

2) the generous offering of themselves as motivational coaches in the service of others.

images-2In the case of Phelps’s winning 8 gold Olympic medals, we witnessed en mass, the results of his paying close attention to all that is required of a star Olympic swimmer, namely,

a) consistent refinement and improvement of his strokes by invoking attention to spatio-temporal agility,

b) highly motivated, goal focused projection of his human energy, and

c) a keen and consistent application of attention to all that it takes to fuel a body to move in pool water like a great Mako shark!

jr_news_taylor_0501z1In the case of Dr. Taylor, who suffered and survived quite nicely, a severe stroke in her left hemisphere, we learn the key lesson through her various online and offline modes of presentation (all previously mentioned on this blog): Regaining access to speech and to Prefrontal Cortex executive functions (analysis, judgment, decision-making) required a kind of Olympic style commitment to “paying attention” to re-learning vowels and consonants, to being able to conceptually distinguish and label right from left.

As Jeffrey Schwartz outlined clearly on the first night of the NeuroLeadership Summit and again throughout the whole of the summit proceedings, “attention density” is that key to changing the brain and thus the very conditions and propensities if you will, of our individual body/mind. And as David Rock was apt to point out, if attention is the protagonist in our mental theater, insight is that beautiful arc we reach as we crystallize evanscent images and thoughts.

The story of Phelp’s prep for Olympic spectacle, the drama of Taylor’s enlightenment — each make for a powerful tutorial on leadership development in training. As for generosity in the service of others, it is clear by their mutual willingness to take their insights and transform them into tools for educating and possibly saving the lives of others, Michael Phelps and Jill Bolte Taylor visualize for all of us the continuum of human excellence in learning and performance.

My SpaceSuit Yoga questions to you dear somanauts, are this:

First, “If you could learn anything about the human brain, about your own human brain, what would you like to know and what would you do with that information?”

Second, “How do you practice “paying attention?”

I welcome your responses and comments. And please know that in the coming months, my institute will be offering special “attention and awareness” training sessions for private individuals and those developing leadership.

As always, May the Breath Be With You!

Synaptically yours,

Dr. G.

P.S. At the time of writing this, it appears Barack Obama has been named President-Elect of the U.S.A.! Talk about attention density and generosity in the service of others!


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3 Responses to “What Do Michael Phelps and Jill Bolte Taylor Have in Common?”

  1. Stephanie Says:

    I am sorry you did not get a chance to discuss Taylor with Jeff at the Summit. He and I do not share your enthusiasm. Here’s one of my posts:


    Thanks for the blogging from the Summit. I have linked to your posts.

  2. spacesuityoga Says:


    I can appreciate the concern that you and Jeff Schwartz have regarding Taylor’s populist teaching of neuroscience. I myself pointed to the problems of simplistic split brain theory and posed the question as such to the online and TED community at large. (See my March blog on Taylor’s talk at the TED conference; Also, ted.com has lots of discussion concerning the problems with Taylor’s narrative.)

    However, by any measure of media, Taylor’s talk appears to speak to something inside the heart, mind and brain of the modern alienated human. Call it “wooly mysticism,” or the overly general ramblings of scientist whose own analytical skepticism was deconstructed by the bold consequences of a near death experience. To those suffering from traumatic brain injury, Taylor’s life story is a harbinger of good news. That she has taken the time and shown great care to share it with others, speaks to her current efforts to bring awareness to the role of the brain in the study of religious experience.

    The intellectual conceit, if there is one, is Taylor’s using her own scientific background to sanction her reworking of Roger Sperry’s split hemisphere theory of the brain in an effort to finesse the neuroanatomy of religious experience.

    As I’ve previously mentioned on this blog, one can avoid the pitfalls of Taylor’s own project by going back to one of the great thinkers on the psychology of religious experience, namely, William James. As well, one can look at a more contemporary neuroscience source, namely, the chapter on extraordinary cognitive experiences which V.S. Ramachandran devotes in his PHANTOMS IN THE BRAIN. Finally, for those interested as to why so many people are drawn to the religions dimension of Taylor’s talk, consider the American history of Great Awakenings — a narrative that points to the convergence of conditions that draws science and religion into relation with the rise and fall and rise of political, social and economic change.

    Finally, a word about “applied” neuroscience: As was fully noted at the NeuroLeadership summit, corporate and journalistic misuse of scientific research no way serves the ends of science and can lead to the worst sort of misleading, popular trend. Yet as long as scientists promote their work in the popular press, the collective appetite for the new gives way to creative license. My blog on PHelps, Taylor (and in the end, Obama) was a pointed attempt to give web surfers and readers a good think on the question of relevance.

    In an age of truthiness and ever emergent complexity, we all struggle to make sense of partial knowledge and relative truth.

    Thanks for raising an important point. I welcome continued discussion.

    Dr. G.

  3. sensit Says:

    You may find it interesting to read Buddhism-influenced review of My Stroke of Insight by Dr Jill Bolte Taylor


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