A Stroke of Insight
December 11, 2009 by Amy Anderson
On December 10, 1996, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor woke up with a pounding, pulsating pain behind her left eye. She was hypersensitive to light, and her hands were curled up like claws. “It was as though I was witnessing myself having this experience rather than me being the person having this experience,” she says.
At 37, Taylor was having a stroke. And she thought it was amazing.
Every 45 seconds, someone suffers a stroke in the United States. But Taylor was a brain scientist, a neuroanatomist at Harvard’s Brain Tissue Resource Center. And so, over the next four hours, as a blood clot the size of a golf ball slowly hemorrhaged to the size of a fist in her brain’s left hemisphere, she observed herself not just as a stroke victim, but as an expert on the brain.
In 2006, Taylor published the New York Times best-selling My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey. Today, she is a sought-after speaker, addressing medical and nursing schools, corporations and even spiritual organizations. She was named one of TIME magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World for 2008, and her speech at the February 2008 TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Conference became a viral video that was seen by more than 5 million viewers.
The stroke occurred in Taylor’s left hemisphere, which is the logical, sequential, organized side of the brain, concerned with numbers, words and time. The right hemisphere is the intuitive, kinesthetic side that views the world in pictures and sees everything in the present moment.
That morning, as Taylor’s left brain began to shut down, she tried to continue with her morning routine. But when she lost her balance in the bathtub, she had a startling realization: She could no longer perceive boundaries around solid objects. She couldn’t tell where her hand stopped and where the wall started. “And through the eyes of a scientist,” she says, “I was really thinking, This is totally cool, totally interesting. But what is wrong with my brain?”
Taylor was alone, and as she got out of the tub, her right arm became paralyzed. “As soon as that happened, that was when I realized, Oh my gosh, I’ve got paralysis. That’s a warning sign of stroke. I’m having a stroke. And then I thought, Wow, this is so cool. How many brain scientists have the opportunity to do this?”
She knew she needed to call for help but couldn’t remember any phone numbers. Words and symbols didn’t register with her deteriorating brain. She drifted back and forth between moments of brief clarity and moments of great peace. “When I wasn’t in my left brain attending to details and going through this process [of finding a phone number], I would drift off into my right hemisphere consciousness, which was very peaceful and very blissful. There was no sense of urgency and there was no sense of fear. There was just this overwhelming sense of love and openness and being as big as the universe.”
After managing to match the “squiggles” on a business card to the “squiggles” on the phone, she reached a co-worker. When he spoke to her, he sounded “like a golden retriever. And I realized I couldn’t understand language. And then I tried to speak and the same ‘roar-roar-roar’ comes out of me. And it was like, oh my gosh, I sound like a golden retriever.”
After being stabilized at Massachusetts General Hospital, she was completely disabled. “I could not walk, talk, read, write or recall any of my life,” she says. “I was essentially an infant.”
She underwent surgery, and over the next eight years, Taylor, with help from her mother, relearned everything. She learned to sit up, to use a fork, to tie her shoes. But she made agonizingly slow process. For example, her mother would teach her to put on her socks and at another time to put on her shoes. “But if you laid my shoes and socks in front of me and said put them on, I would not know that you had to put the socks on before you put the shoes on because I had no linearity to my thinking. And because I had no linearity, I could not multitask.”
Later, she learned vocabulary and conversation. She learned to read. “That was a particularly difficult and painful process for me,” she says. “Very complicated.” Because the right hemisphere thinks in pictures instead of words, she retained images of anatomy and brain structure, but no words to go along with them, so she also relearned the language of her career.
But the brain is designed specifically to overcome such enormous obstacles, Taylor says. “You know, it’s amazing that we are programmed for the brain to change, to adapt, to recover. It’s an absolutely amazing thing we’ve got inside of our heads.”
She compiled most of what she learned during her recovery in her book, including 40 things she needed most as a stroke survivor, a list to aid caregivers.
So what’s different now? Today, she is more artistic, thanks to a heightened ability to see the world with her more visually oriented right hemisphere. Among her works are stained-glass replicas of the brain. And she can sing on key, a new development since the stroke.
“If we look at our anger as simply a form of brain circuitry, we can take steps to diffuse that circuitry.”
“It has fundamentally shifted me,” she says. “Before, I was very left-brain-driven. I was a high achiever. My whole focus was really on my career.” She still works as the national spokesperson for the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center, is an adjunct instructor at the Indiana University School of Medicine and the consulting neuroanatomist on brain cancer for the Midwest Proton Radiotherapy Institute. She also serves as president of the Bloomington, Ind., affiliate of NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Illness) and is collaborating on Wii-like gaming tools for neurological rehabilitation from brain trauma. But she doesn’t stay so busy to boost her career.
“Now, I’m more concerned about having limited time in this body,” she says. “I have had an incredible experience and have incredible opportunities to apply what I have learned to the betterment of humanity. We are all essentially programmed for deep inner peace right there in the core of our right hemispheres.”
Taylor’s goal today is to share what she’s learned about how our brains affect our daily lives, which is the insight she refers to in her book. “We are circuitry. We are thinking circuitry, emotional circuitry and physiological circuitry.” She explains that it only takes 90 seconds for us to think a thought, have an emotional response, such as anger, and then a physiological response that fl ushes in and through us. “And I think that really has the power to change how we look at ourselves and how we look at others.”
Because if we look at our anger as simply a form of brain circuitry, we can take steps to diffuse that circuitry. “Instead of saying I’m mad, I’m madder than hell, say, I’m running my anger circuitry. Wow.” You observe the anger circuitry run its course instead of acting out. “And once that happens, then you have the power to just let it come and go,” she says. “You don’t have to rethink the thoughts that re-stimulate the feeling. You think about something else.” Redirecting your mind, as you would for a child throwing a tantrum, allows the circuitry to stop running and the anger to dissipate.
This insight also has the power to help curtail stress. The part of the brain that causes stress is mainly centered in the left hemisphere. “It’s the left brain that’s talking to us all the time,” Taylor says. “It’s telling us we’re behind; it’s telling us we’re late. It’s our worry circuitry.” So when we’re stressed and our mind is filled with what ifs, it’s important to remember that the left brain is just doing its job. And that we have a choice instead to use the right brain to bring us back into the present moment.
“The present moment is a great moment. I’m just grateful to be alive. I’m just grateful I have my health. I’m just grateful I have my eyes and can see. I’m just grateful I have bladder control because I’m caught in traffic. You know, we have alternative ways of looking at things. And the alternative is to bring my mind right here, right now, back to the present moment. It’s the little things,” she says. “And it’s a choice. That’s the point: It’s a choice.”