On the morning of December 10, neuroanatomist and Harvard lecturer Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor realized a bomb had gone off in her head. The vessels supplying the left half of her brain had failed and blood was now washing over her brain. She was experiencing a severe stroke. Her brain, at least the left half of it, was shutting down.
As her normal connection to the world was deteriorating and she struggled to save her life, she also began to experience a deeply peaceful state where she no longer knew where her body ended and everything else began. She entered a nirvana-like state of oneness and connection.
It took Taylor eight years to recover the full functioning of her left hemisphere-to learn to read, write, walk, talk, and once again function as a lecturer and spokesperson. Her experience led her to write My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey, “a chronological documentation of the journey I took into the formless abyss of a silent mind, where the essence of my being became infolded in a deep inner peace.”
Taylor has been on The Oprah Winfrey Show. She’s been in Time. She’s on TED.com. And she’s coming to Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort on Monday, March 16. Check her out. She’s impressive.
Here are a few highlights from our conversation together.
How did you come to be a brain scientist? I wanted to study the brain because I grew up with a brother who was diagnosed as having the brain disorder schizophrenia. I was trying to help our society better understand the biological basis of the severe mental illnesses. And one day I woke up and realized I had a severe brain disorder of my own. My left hemisphere was no longer functional, and in the absence of my left hemisphere function I was experiencing my right hemisphere processing. It brought my conscious attention to the magnificence of the present moment, and I essentially was in a state of euphoria.
How has this experience changed your life? My whole life changed on the morning of the stroke. The process of recovery was a process of deciding which circuits I wanted to turn back on. Of course I wanted to learn how to talk again. Of course I wanted to learn how to walk again, and how to be socially appropriate again, but I did not like how anger felt in my body. I did not like how anxiety felt in my body. So, I said, “No,” to those circuits. I get to pick and choose what circuits I run. And I believe we all have that ability.
One of the biggest changes in my life is I no longer pursue things. Things find me. I’m not attached to making something happen anymore. I don’t have to. I’m not in my left hemisphere saying, “This is exactly what I want it to look like, this is exactly what I want to create.” No. I say, “I want to create something; the right people are going to connect with me.” And they do. The law of attraction has gotten so much bad rap, but I have to say that when you exist in a state of presence and openness, things do come to you.
Do you see the world differently now? From the consciousness of our right hemisphere we see that we are fluid entities in a fluid environment. I’m a fluid. And you’re a fluid. And the energy and atoms between us are totally connected and totally fluid. My right hemisphere views myself in relationship to the atoms and energy around me, as we are all one. With that consciousness comes compassion, openness, and love.
When I had the stroke, I lost language. Religion is a language. It’s a story. The Christians have a story. The Buddhists have their story. The Muslims have their story. Everybody has a story. However, in each of the religions, the objective is to get beyond the story, to use your mantra, or your meditation, or your prayer-to use the tools of your religion, the tools of your story-in order to quiet the storyteller, which is part of the left hemisphere language center. Then, once you go into prayer and you quiet your language center, or you meditate and you quiet your language center, you shift into this consciousness of being in relationship to something that is greater than the story and words of the left hemisphere.
What are you hoping people will come to learn or appreciate from your experience? We all have this incredible thing inside our head, and the more we know about how to get it to do what we want it to do, the more satisfying a life we can live. The brain is a very dynamic place. It is capable of learning. It is capable of growing. It is capable of finding new ways to do old tricks.
I believe 100 percent in the use of visualization, the use of remembering. Remember what it felt like to run up the stairs two at a time. Remember. Don’t forget that feeling in your body. And say, “One day, I’m going to do that; that’s a goal for me.” And visualize having the strength, having the oomph, having the capacity to throw yourself up those stairs two at a time with enthusiasm. And have it be no big deal.
It’s very important that people understand that I am not a stroke victim, I am a stroke survivor. And I think anyone who has survived a stroke should be treated as a stroke survivor, as if they’ve already done something really wonderful. The language we use and how we address individuals who have survived a stroke makes a tremendous difference in them and in how we’re going to be able to help them.
Jill Bolte Taylor, presented by the Rehabilitation Hospital Foundation to benefit Cottage Rehabilitation Hospital, will speak at Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort on Monday, March 16. Wine and cheese at 5:30 p.m. and a public presentation at 6:30 p.m. ($50); experts’ discussion and dinner at 8 p.m. ($250). Call 687-7444.