Thursday, July 14, 2011

Jill Bolte Taylor Discusses the Brain and Recovery

“Am I safe?”

That is your brain’s bottom line, the question - the one question - that your temporal lobe, amygdala, and hippocampus are asking, moment by moment. When you’re not safe, learning and memory turn off.

The amygdala, which mediates fear and arousal, is engaged in a constant dialogue with its next-door neighbor the hippocampus, responsible for laying down memory, in partnership with the temporal lobe, at least when things go right.

Ultimately, as Jill Bolte Taylor, author of “My Stroke of Insight,” explained at the NAMI national convention last week in Chicago, our job is to create energy where we feel safe. Dr Taylor was climbing the career ladder as a neuroanatomist at Harvard when in 1996, at age 37, she suffered a debilitating stroke that left her unable to walk or talk or recall life. Her recovery took eight years.

Dr Taylor’s tour de force presentation at NAMI completely belied the fact that she had ever so much as suffered a single isolated synaptic misfiring in her entire life, let alone her entire world extinguishing in a catastrophic neurological supernova, but the explanation for her recovery, she let us know, can be summed up in one word: neuroplasticity.

Two words, actually: Neuroplasticity and neurogenesis.

Neuroplasticity, Dr Taylor explained, is about cells supporting cells in a network. It’s all about circuitry, but nothing is hardwired. Our neural connections are forever readjusting and strengthening - with dendrites unplugging from old neurons and replugging into new ones in response to new challenges.

Neurogenesis is about the individual cells and what they need in order to recover.

“The bottom line,” Dr Taylor said, “is we can choose where we can take our nervous system.” Literally, we can change the game. “I am neurocircuitry - thoughts, emotions, physiology. I can pick which circuits I want to run.”

“Pay attention to what you’re running,” she went on to say. “You get to pick and choose what’s going on inside your brain.”

It’s all about the amygdala. “I see your amygdala,” Dr Taylor told her audience. “Happy amygdala? That’s the bottom line for me.”

It all comes down to this: When the amygdala feels safe, the rest of the brain can do its job. Recovery is possible, but it doesn’t happen overnight.

“Give my brain time to recover,” Dr Taylor implored her audience. “Neurons are in very slow motion.” They also need rest, not overstimulation - sleep, lots of it, if that is what it takes to feel energized, even if only for short stretches of time. Her mother, she said, went completely against protocol in letting her sleep - which ultimately allowed her to heal.

Safety, time, rest - is healing really that simple? Think what the word, asylum, means. Maybe the answer has been staring us in the face all the time.

Much more to come ...


lizabeth said...

I loved Dr. Taylor's book, but then I loaned it to my tdoc and she kept forgetting to bring it back--oh well. My main reason for loaning it to her was to maybe refute the idea that 'sleeping too much' is a symptom. Maybe instead it is the brain trying to heal itself in MI too.

John McManamy said...

Hey, Lizabeth. I absolutely loved Jill Bolte Taylor's endorsement of sleep. When I got back from hearing her in the course of a 4-day convention in a different time zone, I knew I would need a week to recoup. Indeed, two days ago I took two naps. I'm fortunate in that my schedule permits this. I could never survive going back to a straight 9 to 5. Our brains work way too hard when awake. We're stressed and over-stimulated and dealing with racing thoughts and anxiety and uncertainty and a lot of other stuff. Even routine tasks wear us out. We really do need extra sleep to recover and we shouldn't feel like lazy slobs because we have to. But at the same time we need the wisdom to know when enough is enough. I think this is a good topic for a blog. Feedback, anyone?

John McManamy said...

Hey, Lizabeth. Your comments inspired me in making Jill Bolte Taylor's views on sleep the basis of my latest "Question of the Week" on HealthCentral:


Smitty said...

Sleep..... there really is no substitute for it. Thank you for sharing Taylor's poignant appeal. Brain healing needs sleep, it makes sense to ME!