A brain scientist’s stroke makes the case for quieting the mind
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor was a Harvard-trained brain scientist in 1996 when she had a stroke at age 37. She witnessed her own brain deteriorate, learning some life-changing insights about the importance of quieting the mind and strengthening both the right and left sides of the brain.
In her book, My Stroke of Insight, she describes her stroke—the third leading cause of death for American women—in unexpected ways:
“I felt as though I was suspended in a peculiar euphoric stupor, and I was strangely elated when I understood that this unexpected pilgrimage into the intricate functions of my brain actually had a physiological basis and explanation. I kept thinking, Wow, how many scientists have the opportunity to study their own brain function and mental deterioration from the inside out?”
She’ll bring her inspiring story—one Sony Pictures is expected to put to film—to the Pioneer Center on Wednesday, April 20.
The way you describe your stroke, it sounds painful, but in many ways also an enviable experience—one in which you found, as you say, nirvana. Is this a common feeling among people with strokes? Was there something particular about how your stroke developed that caused these sensations?
It all depends on what portion of the brain has been traumatized. I’ve received lots of emails from stroke survivors who say, “You put words to my story.” I’ve received emails from others saying, “Your experience was nothing like mine, but thank you for bringing attention to strokes and the ability of the brain to recover.” So it depends where the trauma was. My trauma was centralized in the left hemisphere of my brain. It was in my cortex, which is my higher cognition and thinking.
In your book, your stroke sounded like a psychedelic drug experience. From what you know of what happens to the brain during drug experiences, was this at all similar?
I don’t know because I missed the ’60s—I was born in ’59. But it would make sense that some would have that because the brain is simply numbed by chemicals, so if you have any drug, whether it’s a medication or any kind of illicit drug, it goes into the system and acts on what’s already there. Whether that system was stimulated for me by the shutdown of the traumatized tissue or whether it can be stimulated by other means, it’s just the system, it’s just the brain. …
My experience lasted for eight years. During that period of time, I got to learn which part of me was turned on with that circuitry and which was shut down through the trauma. I’m an advocate for people really learning what does it feel like when your right hemisphere is turned on, what’s it feel like when your left hemisphere is turned on, so you can actually pick and choose who you want to be and how you want to be by choice.
I really discourage illicit drugs. I encourage just doing it and not using illicit drugs to get there. Meditation is a great tool to teach people how to shut down the left brain. There are lots of natural ways to shut down the left brain to come to the present moment. You don’t have to use a tool, just be willing to bring your mind into the present moment.
When you’re in the right hemisphere, you’re not about the past, not about the future; you’re actually present. And when you’re in the present moment, that’s where you find peace. It’s really very easy. It’s a decision, and it’s an experience. What I try to do in my presentations is to take people into their own minds and what they are as a biological creature, into the skill set of the different hemispheres and how they process that. Most will find, when in the right hemisphere, there’s a joyfulness, a peacefulness.
Could you briefly explain the differences between the right and left brain hemispheres?
When I’m more in my right brain, I care less about the details. I’m lighter in my body, and I’m more into the present moment, rather than the left brain, where I’m focused on details, and critical judgment, and relating that to my past and future. I help people get an understanding of those two different ways of being.
We grow up hearing about left and right brain, and thinking we’re one or the other, but you’re saying we can choose to change that.
The two hemispheres work so well together that we all have the perception that there’s only one of us. There’s not. Each of us prefers one or the other. If we’re really good at thinking or analysis, we want to be in a thinking, analytical world and project that into the world. If we are more artistic and musical and that’s where we get our joy and pleasure, we’ll grow up to encourage that circuitry, and hopefully, we’ll be able to make a living doing that. But we all have both hemispheres, both skill sets. The more aware we are of that, we can blend them and create a life that’s more balanced.
Some of what you’re talking about sounds almost New Agey and spiritual. How has the scientific community reacted to your work?
It’s been phenomenal. When you read the book, I use the language of the left brain. The language of the left brain makes left-brained-hemisphere people comfortable. So they understand that I understand the experience I had is a product of the structure of the brain. I don’t use the language of the right brain, which would have freaked my colleagues out—and that’s done totally by choice. …
When you look at experiments of people in meditation or in deep prayer, and they go into MRIs and see which areas are active or quiet, it makes the same argument—the left becomes quiet.
So we don’t have to have strokes to discover this.
Absolutely not. I believe we all have the capacity, but it has to be a choice. Deep prayer, yoga, meditation, takes you there. Those are the ones I’m aware of most people can experience. Meditation can mean walking in nature. It doesn’t have to mean sitting on the floor with your legs crossed and eyes closed. To me, it means allowing yourself to quiet the brain chatter of your left brain. Once we do that, we can shift from all the stuff entering our mind and focus on the present moment.
I hear there’s a movie in the works about your experience.
We are working with Ron Howard and Sony Pictures on the creation of a feature film. Jodie Foster will probably play me; I don’t know who will play my mom.
Tell me about your mom’s role in your recovery.
She was retired, 70 at the time of my stroke. She just dropped her whole life, moved to Boston and took over my life. She realized immediately I was an infant in a woman’s body. I had no recollection of my life. I was drooling. I was an infant. She just wrapped her arms around me and … our mothers have these secret powers they have learned after years of taking care of us. My mother had lost all her secret powers because I didn’t know what a mother was, or who my mother was. My mother realized—smart woman—that she’d have to build a new relationship with me based on truth and openness and love and a mutual investment in my recovery. She was, really, to stop being my mother, which she’d been for 37 years, and reestablish a new relationship with me. We didn’t have any of the old baggage because I didn’t remember any of it. It was a fascinating experience for her, but a good one, and she was able to help me at the level I was at. She truly was an angel. She did not have to do that. She could have been very critical and judgmental. She looked at me with her right brain, which was from her heart and her openness and her love. I would not be here today if it were not for G.G. Taylor. We were very good friends before; we remain very good friends. She says, “I thank my lucky stars that I’m alive” to see this chapter of my life. It’s been a beautiful experience. We’ve both grown as human beings. My energy level blows her mind. I’m a high-energy speaker, and I take the audience on a trip into their own minds that really has the capacity to change their lives forever.
It took you eight years to recover. Do you remember your past now?
Not really. I’ve looked through picture books. I know things about my past no one has taught me, so there has to have been some [opening of memory.]
To what degree do you think you’ve recovered?
I can do things now I could never do before. 120 percent. I gained in the process. Physically, I’m back 100 percent. Cognitively, I have the same cognitive capacity. Emotionally, I’m much wiser and more aware. My role in the world is much clearer. So I definitely gained.
Is that common?
I think everyone is different. Every stroke is unique in where the trauma is. Everyone’s unique in how much get-up-and-go they have. Everyone is unique in the environment in which they were treated. I was treated as though I’d recover completely, and I did. Some doctors say, “If you don’t get it in six months, you likely never will.” What does that do? I think the best thing anyone can do is say the brain is capable of recovery, and we need to treat it as such.