Monday, September 12, 2011

Jill Bolte Taylor's Stroke of Insight

Jill Bolte Taylor was a 37-year-old Harvard neuroanatomist about to arise for another day at work. Her brain had other ideas. A piercing pain struck her behind the left eye. A blood vessel had just exploded deep inside her cortex, spewing blood into the left hemisphere.

Dr Taylor didn’t realize yet that she was undergoing a stroke. She got to her exercise machine, where she felt herself suspended in a dream state. She stumbled into the shower, where she lost touch with a lot of her old reality, or, rather, she encountered a new reality. As she describes it in her 2006 book, “My Stroke of Insight”:

My body was propped against the shower wall and I found it odd that I was no longer aware that I could no longer clearly discern the physical boundaries of where I began and where I ended. I sensed the composition of my being as that of a fluid rather than as a solid. I no longer perceived myself as a whole object separate from everything. Instead, I now blended with the space and flow around me. ...

In her book, Dr Taylor compares her state to the type of Nirvana that mystics devote their entire lives to attaining. In her case, there was one catch: she would be dead if she didn’t find a way of getting out of the shower and to the phone. But to do that, she needed to bring the left hemisphere of her brain back online.

The brain is essentially two processing units, Dr Taylor explains. The right hemisphere functions like a parallel processor while the left functions like a serial processor. The right brain is all about the present moment, nonjudgmental, when everything and everyone are connected as one. The left brain, by contrast, makes separations and judges.

Yet the two parts of the brain, through 300 million connecting axonal fibers in the corpus callosum, work together. The order and logic of the left brain makes no sense without the intuitions and sensations and emotional colorings of the right - and vice-versa. Those who think outside the box are credited with being in tune with their right brains, but the ability to think rationally is not to be sneezed at.

Dr Taylor stepped out of the shower, determined to get ready for work. It was only when her right arm dropped paralyzed against her side that she realized she was having a stroke. As the light in her left brain flickered, she became in thrall to the luminescence of her right brain. As she describes it:

In the absence of my left brain’s analytical judgment, I was completely entranced by feelings of tranquility, safety, blessedness, euphoria, and omniscience.

Somehow, she made it to her office, but by now she had no recollection of what number to dial, much less a working concept of numbers. She searched through a stack of business cards, but her brain only perceived the printed information as pixels. After 35 minutes, she recognized a logo on one of the cards as somehow being the one that contained the vital number. Then followed a tortuous process of making the call. When she finally got connected, her speech was incoherent. She put down the phone, and made it to the door and undid the deadbolt. Then she slumped on the couch, waiting.

As she was transferred in an ambulance in transit from one hospital to another, she felt a sense of release. She recalls:

The electrical vitality of my molecular mass grew dim, and when I felt my energy lift, my cognitive mind surrendered its connection to, and command over, my body’s physical mechanics. ... I clearly understood I was no longer the choreographer of this life. ...

The doctors managed to stabilize her at the hospital, and two weeks later they surgically removed a blood clot the size of a golf ball. It would take her eight years to fully recover from her stroke, but already she was a different person, one who appreciated the beauty of just “being” as opposed to always “doing.” One of the major challenges in our lives, she says, is successfully integrating the two distinct personalities of our brains.

Dr Tayor’s stroke of insight involved the realization that deep inner peace is just a thought/feeling away, seated in the circuitry of the right brain. Thanks to the brain’s plasticity, we can literally tend our garden through conscious and disciplined effort, growing new and positive neural circuits and pruning back old and destructive ones.  As she concludes:

Your body is the life force of some fifty trillion molecular geniuses. You and you alone choose moment by moment how you want to be in the world. 

Earlier piece:  Jill Bolte Taylor Discusses the Brain and Recovery

1 comment:

Smitty said...

Truly an amazing story. Thank you for sharing it!