Stroke of Insight: A Window Inside the Brain

Jill Bolte Taylor describes in vivid detail the stroke that changed her life.

June 23, 2008, 12:18 PM

June 24, 2008— -- Jill Bolte Taylor has always been fascinated by the brain.

"I've always been thinking about who am I as a brain, as a mind," Taylor told "Nightline" co-anchor Terry Moran. "To me, it's absolutely phenomenal that this collection of cells is capable of creating for us a perception of the world that seems real and that feels safe. To me that is just a mind-blowing concept."

Taylor's own perception of the world was shattered in an instant on Dec. 10, 1996, when the then 37-year-old suffered a left hemisphere stroke. As a scientist, the stroke offered a Taylor a rare opportunity to experience what she studied.

She has since shared that experience with the world in a best-selling book, "My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey," and a presentation she gave at the Technology, Entertainment, Design conference in February that has caught on like wildfire on the Internet.

The stroke was the moment that "everything changed," Taylor now says.

"In the course of four hours I watched my mind completely deteriorate in its ability to process all information coming in through my sensory systems," she said. "I had no ability to connect what was going on inside of my nervous system with the external world. I shifted away from being the person I was before."

Who Taylor was before the stroke was a Harvard-trained and published neuroanatomist who devoted her life to studying the brain at the cellular level. Her experience growing up with a sibling who suffered from mental illness shaped her future profession.

"Eventually [my brother] was diagnosed with chronic schizophrenia," Taylor said. "So his brain was organizing information very differently than mine, was and that fascinated me."

She chose to study the brain because, she says, "I knew I would never be bored." Still fascinated by her subject matter, Taylor calls the space inside our heads "the great frontier."

Most people would expect a stroke to be a frightening, even painful experience, but Taylor describes it differently, using words such as "bliss" and "euphoria" and adding that she didn't initially realize what was happening.

"There was no fear," she said. "I'm observing myself feeling detached from my normal perception of reality."

She calls it an "incredible education" for a scientist, because the stroke allowed her to live what she had learned about how the left and right hemispheres of the brain function.

Taylor's stroke occurred in the left hemisphere of her brain, where the language center is primarily located. The left hemisphere controls the ability to create sound and to understand words; it controls the internal organization of every detail of your life. The right hemisphere controls what Taylor calls "the big picture."

"The right hemisphere is the big contextual landscape of your life," she said. "You're not focusing on all the details. You're experiencing the whole context … So you have both of these beautiful hemispheres. One is designed to do the big picture. The other is designed to take the detail out of that, and then you walk into the world and you have both."

Taylor says her stroke of insight, her epiphany, occurred when her right hemisphere took over.

"You have this brain that brings you to the present moment, and in this present moment you are experiencing a collage of sensory … You can feel the temperature of the air. You can feet the slight breeze in your hair. You can see the world. You can smell scents about you. There is this magnificent present moment."

But there are also downsides to living only in the present moment.

"The disadvantage of just living in the right hemisphere is as soon as I would turn my back on you, I would have a new present moment and you don't exist for me anymore," she explained. "Imagine what that would be like … we require so much information that we have learned in the past to teach us how to appropriately act with the present moment. So, it takes both. I am an advocate of the balanced brain where you have both."

According to Taylor, the world we live in doesn't emphasize a balance of the left and right sides of the brain.

"We are in a very left hemisphere dominated society," she said. "We reward our children for their left hemisphere skills."

The right hemisphere, she says, is "an experience of deep internal peace that is just phenomenal, and to think that we all have that right there, right there in the consciousness of the right mind. To me that was the insight, it was I can have this experience of nirvana and bliss… And we are all perfect and whole and beautiful simply because we are."

Taylor says anyone can consciously go to that part of the brain, comparing it to how everyone detaches and relaxes while on vacation. "It's an awareness," she said. "First, I think, it's an awareness and then a practice and a discipline."

"You can always take yourself back to that perception. Does that mean you're going to spend you life on vacation? No, because you want to be a productive human being in the world. But it does mean you're sitting in that board meeting and you're bored to death and you're feeling all this stress and you're late for home and your tension is rising and you have that choice to picture I'm going back to bliss."

Taylor says this is easier than meditation, because there is "no destination."

"That doesn't in any way negate the validity of where meditation will take you if you want to go through that kind of a practice and you enjoy that. For me, I just want to go there. I just go there."

After her stroke, Taylor says that she was no longer a "normal human being," and the person who had achieved so much professionally disappeared. She says that her values, interests and abilities all shifted.

"I did lose my mind," she said.

"When that language center, when that left hemisphere died, I had no recollection of her life," she explained. "That person and her capacities, she died. And I was real clear that I was no longer that person because I didn't share anything about her other than this form. I was going to look like her, I was going to speak like her, but I didn't have any of her memory… So, it was never my goal to recover. So we grieved her, we mourned her, we let her go. And we celebrated, 'OK, now who am I going to become?'"

Taylor resented the anxiety, anger and pity of those around her at the hospital, and doesn't believe people who have suffered brain injuries should be categorized as damaged.

"I was not a victim. I was a stroke survivor. It's an attitude. It's an attitude of how do we look at people that are different than we are," she said.

Her recovery was a "moment-by-moment experience," she said.

Three weeks after the stroke Taylor underwent brain surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital, and as she began her long road to recovery, Taylor says her first priority was regaining language capacity.

"It didn't matter if I couldn't do any math, it wouldn't matter if I didn't learn about the brain or any of my science," she said. "But I did need to be able to speak."

It took eight years for Taylor to fully recover and return to her professional life, and the changes in her life have shifted her area of research.

"This has set me free," she said. "This experience has set me free from the doctrine of hardcore science that I was brought up to believe, into looking at the bigger picture of what is really going on inside the portions of the brain that left hemisphere tools cannot measure or understand."

Taylor says that the experience has also transformed her as a person; she says she's friendlier, more compassionate, more loving, more connected to fellow human beings.

"I consider all my life since Dec. 10, 1996, as gravy time," she said. "Gravy is just this bonus. So, in this bonus time, how can I help us think differently… in order to help decrease the amount of suffering that we are engaged in and that hostility and pain and to project more peace from what we are as a living being? So my intention is completely different. "

Taylor is also giving a number of speeches each month and is in discussions to turn her book into a feature film.

She thinks her story has generated so much interest because it "has an appeal to anyone that has a brain," adding that the response from people who have seen the video has been overwhelming.

"I'm getting these beautiful stories from people that have a sibling or a family member with a severe mental illness or who have had a stroke, and they're desperate to know that these people are still in there. 'How do I find them? What do I do?'"

Taylor doesn't know why she was given this window into a different world.

"This experience happened," she said. "It just happened to someone who had this biological background who then got to observe it and walk away with a different kind of perception."

Taylor doesn't equate that different perception with a transformative religious experience. As a scientist, she says, she doesn't believe in "an external entity sitting on a cloud somewhere… But is there something beyond me, is there something much greater than what I am? Oh, absolutely."

For Taylor, different religions are just different stories, different paths to the same place.

"[Different religions] are ultimately getting to the same consciousness, which would be that right hemisphere, a celebration of what we are. … So, it's the left hemisphere story that gets you to that place. I am not attached to the story, I am not attached to anyone's story. I think whatever story it is, great, if it gets you to the same final destiny then that's a beautiful thing."

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