Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor is a Harvard-trained neuroanatomist who specializes in the postmortem investigation of the human brain. What that means is, she cuts up the brains of dead people to look for the neurological causes of severe mental illness.
On the morning of December 10, 1996, a blood vessel exploded in 37-year-old Jill’s brain. She woke up to discover that she was having a massive stroke — a severe hemorrhage of blood into her brain.
Her immediate thought was “Oh my gosh, I’m having a stroke!” But this was quickly followed by: “Wow, this is so cool!”
As a curious neuroanatomist, she was fascinated to be able to observe up close her own mind systematically deteriorating — to the point at which, four hours later, she was unable to walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of her life.
Left and right brains
Jill’s experience vividly illustrates how the average brain is organised into two distinct centres of operation. Anatomically, the brain is divided into a left hemisphere and a right hemisphere which are joined together in the middle by a stretch of fibres, the corpus callosum (the red blob in this graphic).
In the vast majority of people, the two hemispheres work very differently:
Jill’s stroke involved an eruption of blood across the cortex of her left hemisphere, knocking out important neural circuits as it spread. The image below shows roughly the location of damage in Jill’s case:
Below you can see the sorts of mental functions that tend to be located in the left cortex, and which in Jill’s case were rendered obsolete by the stroke:
Jill had to undergo major surgery to remove a golf-ball-sized blood clot from her brain. But she remained in a vegetative state as a result of the brain damage sustained. And yet, partly because of her understanding of how the brain works, Jill was able to completely recover use of her mind, brain and body.
I believed in the plasticity of my brain — its ability to repair, replace, and retrain its neural circuitry. In addition, thanks to my academics, I had a “roadmap” ro understand how my brain cells needed to be treated in order for them to recover.
(My Stroke of Insight, pp. 35-36)
Her full recovery took eight years. That in itself is pretty remarkable. But the truly eye-opening and inspiring part of Jill’s story is what happened within her subjective experience during and after the stroke — for with the left half of her brain no longer able to function, she experienced herself without ego and without mind, blissfully at one with the universe.
Jill’s stroke had the effect of shutting down her involvement with the familiar world — the world that is defined by our language and our analytical concepts of reality, such as ‘me’ versus ‘not me’.
From the outside, this loss her left hemisphere’s linguistic, orientational, analytical and critical faculties left her incapable of functioning normally. But from the inside, it freed her consciousness to experience reality in a whole new way, openly and intuitively. She lived in what she calls “right here, right now awareness”, a euphoric explosion of stimuli with no sense of past or future, each moment fresh and undefined. She felt herself to be merged with universal energy.
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… (p. 41)
I could no longer clearly discern the physical boundaries of where I began and where I ended. I sensed the composition of my being is that of a fluid rather than that of a solid. I no longer perceived myself as a whole object separate from everything. Instead, I now blended in with the space and flow around me. (p. 42)
As the dominating fibers of my left hemisphere shut down, they no longer inhibited my right hemisphere, and my perception was free to shift such that my consciousness could embody the tranquility of my right mind. Swathed in an enfolding sense of liberation and transformation, the essence of my consciousness shifted … I’m no authority, but I think the Buddhists would say I entered the mode of existence they call Nirvana. (p. 49)
The whole experience for Jill was life-changing in more ways than one.
On the one hand, she had reverted to the level of a helpless infant “in the body of an adult woman … with a brain that didn’t work.” Her recovery, remarkable though it was, would take years.
On the other hand, she had discovered a better quality of life through increased use of the right hemisphere of her brain.
For a long time, she experienced life as mystics throughout the ages have experienced it. Many have sought this bliss, this liberation, this Nirvana, and failed. Now, Jill teaches that we all have the neural circuitry of bliss in our right hemispheres — it’s just a matter of changing the “loops” we let run around in our heads.
Life causes us to become left-hemisphere dominant. Through practice, however, we can become adept at not only accessing more of the right hemisphere, including the circuitry of bliss and enlightenment, but we can also find greater balance in life in general, allowing the right hemisphere in on the act more often.
While she was in her inner “la-la land”, as she calls it, Jill was unable to function like a normal human being. Slowly, she learned how to re-start her logical, verbal, externally-directed functions. But once Jill was better able to function, the liberation of her own right hemisphere set in motion a whole new flow of creativity in her life. Now she is an artist as well as a scientist, creating stained-glass images of (what else?) brains.
Telling the world
Ten years after her stroke, Jill’s account of the experiences was published as My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey. Her first-hand description of having a stroke reads more like an explorer’s journal than a memoir of suffering. As well as vividly describing the subjective experiences, both the painful and the transcendental, it explains in scientific terms exactly what happened during the stroke and how she recovered.
It also takes a closer look at how the right hemisphere of the brain works. Finally, Jill describes how people with normal brains can better access their right hemisphere to find their own inner peace and improve their quality of their life and the lives of others.
The book became a New York Times best-seller.
In February 2008, Jill spoke at a TED Conference about her memory of the stroke.
The video of this talk — which I certainly recommend — went viral, resulting in widespread attention and interest around the world and, in October 2008, an interview with Oprah Winfrey.
Subsequently, she was chosen as one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World for 2008.
Jill teaches at the Indiana University School of Medicine and is also the national spokesperson for the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center (the “Harvard Brain Bank”), which keeps a store of human brains for research. Jill’s job is to encourage more people to become donors. Not easy. But through her wonderful writings and lectures, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor has done perhaps more than anyone else to explain not only what a stroke is but also what it is like — and why research like hers is of value.
Photo courtesy of Indiana University
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