June 26, 2009
My Stroke of Insight Makes NY Times Bestseller List
I first heard Jill Bolte Taylor's remarkable story about her stroke when she spoke at the TED Conference. Her talk blew the audience away, not surprising given her remarkable tale, one which has both inspired people and provided incredible insights for the world of medicine.
For more about what she went through, the Q&A below recounts her story and some of the feelings she went through while she was going through the stroke, as well as a deeper look into the left and right hemispheres of the brain.
Q: You describe the series of strange sensations your body was going through the morning of the stroke. At what point did you realize how serious the situation was?
A: From the moment I woke up with a pulsating headache, I was aware that something was not right. While in the shower, when the sound of the water surging into the tub knocked me over, I was aware that I was having a major neurological phenomenon. However, I did not realize that I was l was experiencing a stroke until my right arm went totally paralyzed by my side.
Q: What was your immediate reaction?
A: When I first realized that I was having a stroke my left hemisphere brain chatter said to me, “Oh my gosh, I’m having a stroke!” Immediately following that, it exclaimed, “Wow, this is so cool!” You have to understand that I had spent my entire life studying the brain from the outside in. On that morning, I had an opportunity few scientists will ever have – the ability to study their own brain from the inside out! It was a fascinating experience…through the eyes of a trained scientist.
Q: As a neuroanatomist, you're an expert on the brain. What was the most unexpected thing you learned from actually having a stroke?
A: I did not realize that I was capable of experiencing bliss and deep inner peace. When my left hemisphere and its ongoing brain chatter became completely non-functional, I shifted into an incredible state of euphoria. It was a really beautiful experience that I was not aware of ever experiencing before.
Q: What helped you the most during your decade of recovery?
A: I owe my entire ability to recover to my mother GG Taylor. She came to my side immediately, and recognized that I was now an infant in a woman’s body. Even in this completely debilitated condition, she treated me with respect and together we embarked upon trying to figure out what my brain cells needed in order to recover health and function.
One of the most important things we did was that we focused on my abilities rather than my disabilities and we gave my brain the sleep it desperately needed in order for the cells to recover. In addition, we did what we needed to do to take care of my brain, realizing that if my brain cells were happy and functional, then I could be happy and functional.
Q: Now that you've experienced living in your right brain, can you go back to that euphoric place at will?
A: Yes, the beauty of our brain is that both of the hemispheres are always active so the bliss of my right hemisphere is always a circuitry that I can tap into. I believe we all have this ability.
We have the ability to choose to pay attention to the circuitry of our chattering left hemispheres and attend to the details in our lives, or we have the cognitive ability to change what we are thinking about, choose to take a pause, take a breath, step back and look at the big picture of who we are and what are we doing here as a magnificent life force power in physical form.
We are always using both halves of our brains and we make choices thousands of times a day about how we want to perceive something. An easy example of this is listening to a piece of music. You can choose to listen to the piece as a whole creation or you can choose to focus on each of the instruments playing its line. You can choose to listen and think with language, or choose to think and interact with the ongoing kinesthetic stimulation your body is receiving.
Q: You're still a neuroanatomist, and you remain affiliated with the Indiana University School of Medicine. How has the stroke changed your approach to studying and teaching about the brain?
A: I have a very different perspective of myself in relationship to the external world and I am no longer worried about or focused on my own personal gain or value.
As a result, I have shifted my concern to the students and the quality of their education. I teach them about the value of compassion and about the choices they are consciously or unconsciously making day by day. I try to instill in them an awareness of their responsibility for how they present themselves to their patients with the hope that they will become more caring physicians.
My interests in research have also shifted away from choosing to work in a lab environment where I spend endless hours in isolation, to working with helping others find the resources they need to recover. I have become much more of a humanitarian.
Q: And what can your readers learn from your experience?
A: I believe that this book is of tremendous value to anyone who has a brain that they would like to create a better relationship with. Caregivers of anyone who is ill will walk away with a shifted perception of what the brain needs in order to recover and a toolbox of recommendations to help someone in need.
Anyone who has experienced a brain trauma of any sort will also be armed with real strategies to help them help themselves during the process of neurological recovery. Spiritual seekers will better understand the neurocircuitry underlying the ability of our brains to have a spiritual experience, and how they can work with themselves to shift their own perceptions.
People who are extremely right hemisphere dominant find validation as to why “they are the way they are” and that it is healthy to celebrate that. Also, anyone interested in learning more about how to “get their brain to do what they want it to do” will rejoice in the cacophony of practical information.
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