On a December morning in 1996, Jill Bolte Taylor – a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School – experienced a stroke in the left side of her brain. “Within four brief hours, I watched my mind completely deteriorate in its ability to process information. By the end of that morning, I could not walk, talk, read, write or recall any of my life. Curled up into a little fetal ball, I felt my spirit surrender to my death, and it certainly never dawned on me that I would ever be capable of sharing my story with anyone”.
Her book, My stroke of insight is a product of this experience. Bolte Taylor describes it as “a weaving of my academic training with personal experience and insight. As far as I am aware, this is the first documented account of a neuroanatomist who has completely recovered from a severe brain hemorrhage”. Much of the book, which moves elegantly between first and third person perspectives, is focused on stroke, stroke survival, recovery and health advocacy. I am not here reviewing the book as a whole. I am focusing on the spiritual journey at its heart, which I see as having major contemplative interest.
Early in her stroke experience Bolte Taylor tried to work out what was going on. What was happening in her brain? “The harder I tried to concentrate, the more fleeting my ideas seemed to be. Instead of finding answers and information, I met a growing sense of peace. In place of that constant chatter that had attached me to the details of my life, I felt enfolded in a blanket of tranquil euphoria. How fortunate I was that the portion of my brain that registered fear, the amygdala, had not reacted with alarm to these unusual circumstances and shifted me into a state of panic. As the language centers in my left hemisphere grew increasingly silent and I became detached from the memories of my life, I was comforted by an expanding sense of grace. In this void of higher cognition and details pertaining to my normal life, my consciousness soared into an all-knowingness, a ‘being at one’ with the universe, if you will. In a compelling sort of way, it felt like the good road home and I liked it”.
She was ready to lie down on her waterbed and simply drift away, but it was not to be. “Resounding like thunder from deep within my being, a commanding voice spoke clearly to me: If you lie down now you will never get up.” Just in time, Bolte Taylor found the will and capacity to dial a phone number and mumble into the ears of a close work colleague, who immediately drove to her house. Her slow journey back into the linguistic and social world – at times a reluctant one – was about to begin. It was clear that that this would not be a simple return to life before the stroke. It would have to be something new.
“My escape into bliss was a magnificent alternative to the daunting sense of mourning and devastation I felt every time I was coaxed back into some type of interaction with the percolating world outside of me. … It was clear that the ‘I’ whom I had grown up to be had not survived this neurological catastrophe. I understood that Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor died that morning, and yet, with that said, who was left? Or, with my left hemisphere destroyed, perhaps I should now say, who was right? Without a language center telling me: ‘I am Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. I am a neuroanatomist. I live at this address and can be reached at this phone number’, I felt no obligation to be her any more … Now that I didn’t know her life … I was no longer bound to her decisions or self-induced limitations … Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor had grown up with lots of anger and a lifetime of emotional baggage that must have required a lot of energy to sustain. She was passionate about her work and advocacy. She was intensely committed to living a dynamic life. But, despite her likeable and even admirable characteristics, in my present form I had not inherited her fundamental hostility. I had forgotten about my brother and his illness. I had forgotten about my parents and their divorce. I had forgotten about my job and all the things in my life that brought me stress – and with this obliteration of memories, I felt both relief and joy. I had spent a life-time of 37 years being enthusiastically committed to ‘do-do-doing’ lots of stuff at a very fast pace. On this special day, I learned the meaning of simply ‘being’”.
It took eight years for Jill Bolte Taylor to make a complete recovery from her stroke, and she is clear about what she has learned. “Prior to this experience with stroke, the cells in my left hemisphere had been capable of dominating the cells in my right hemisphere. The judging and analytical character in my left mind dominated my personality. When I experienced the hemorrhage and lost my left hemisphere language center cells that defined my self, those cells could no longer inhibit the cells in my right mind. As a result, I have gained a very clear delineation of the two very distinct characters cohabiting my cranium. The two halves of my brain don’t just perceive and think in different ways at a neurological level, but they demonstrate very different values based upon the types of information they perceive, and thus exhibit very different personalities. My stroke of insight is that at the core of my right hemisphere consciousness is a character that is directly connected to my feeling of deep inner peace. It is completely connected to the expression of peace, love, joy and compassion in the world”
Bolte Taylor now wants to maintain a “healthy balance” between both the functional abilities of the two hemispheres, and also “to have more say over which character dominates my perspective at any given moment”. Her left brain is now ‘normal’ again. It perceives the shorter wavelengths of light, increasing its ability to clearly delineate sharp boundaries – adept at identifying separation lines between adjacent entities. It tunes into the higher frequencies of sound, supporting the development and use of language. It speaks constantly, weaves stories, processes information with remarkable speed and efficiency, maintains personal identity and communicates with the outside world. The right brain thinks in collages and images. Responding to the longer wave lengths of light, its visual perception is blended and softened, with a lack of edge that allows it to dwell on the bigger picture and how things relate to one another. It tunes in to the lower frequencies of sound that are readily generated by our body gurgles and other natural tones. It is biologically designed to readily tune in to our physiology. Bolte Taylor says, “I’m having a big love-fest with the fifty trillion molecular geniuses making up my body. I am so grateful that they are alive and working together in perfect harmony that I implicitly trust them to bring me health”. Quoting a saying that ‘peacefulness should be the place we begin rather than the place we try to achieve’, Bolte Taylor takes this to mean that “we should stem from the peaceful consciousness of our right mind and use the skills of our left mind to interact with the external world”.
Towards the end of the book there are specific recommendations for the rebalancing of consciousness. These include: interrupting negative self-talk or replacing it with vivid imagery; coming back to the here-and-now (where the right brain always dwells) though sensory stimulation, music, deep body massage, or simply walking in the rain. Bolte Taylor also touches on energy dynamics and intuition, seeing them as right brain qualities unrecognized by the left. She says, “our right hemisphere is designed to perceive and decipher the subtle energy dynamics we perceive intuitively … Since the stroke, I steer my life almost entirely by how people, places and things feel to me energetically. In order to hear the intuitive wisdom of my right mind, however, I must consciously slow my left mind down so I am not simply carried along by the current of my chatty story-teller. Intuitively, I don’t question why I am subconsciously attracted to some people and situations, and yet repelled by others. I simply listen to my body and implicitly trust my instincts.”
Jill Bolte Taylor’s message is a simple invitation to tend the garden of the mind from a standpoint of compassion towards self, others and the wider world. It is hardly new or surprising. It is the nature, integrity and inner authority of this individual journey that mark it out.
Jill Bolte Taylor My stroke of insight: a brain scientist’s personal journey London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2008