My Stroke Of Insight
by Jill Bolte Taylor
by Kathy Coogan
By the age of 37, Jill Bolte Taylor Ph.D. was a Harvard-trained expert in the field of brain anatomy, had been honored by Time magazine and was a spokesperson for NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Illness).
Recognizing the need for brain donation for research, and the squeamishness that topic produced, this “Singing Scientist” wrote a jingle which she sang during her speeches on the “Tissue Issue”. She always ended singing, “I want your brain, oh yes I do. But don’t worry, I’m in no hurry.”
At age 37, this multi-talented Renaissance woman suffered a massive hemorrhagic stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain. Ten years later, recovered but altered by her experience she wrote, My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey.
In her book, Dr. Bolte Taylor clinically describes what happened in her brain, neuron by neuron, in the minutes and hours after she awoke on December 10, 1996. She says, “…I watched my mind completely deteriorate in its ability to process stimulation coming in through my senses. I could not walk, talk, read, write or recall any aspects of my life.” She became “an infant in a woman’s body.”
Dr. Taylor wisely includes two chapters which enlighten the non-scientist about the workings of the brain. In simple language she conducts a mini-seminar using coloring-book-like diagrams for her reader.
Most important to her story and our understanding of it is her description of the separate but related functions of the right and left hemispheres of the brain. While her damaged left mind was being rebuilt and rebooted through ardous effort, she relied on her right mind for the survival of her real self.
One sentence in the last chapter, summarizes Dr. Bolte Tayor’s thesis: “Based upon my experience with losing my left mind, I wholeheartedly believe that the feeling of deep inner peace is neurological circuitry located in our right brain.”
The medical aspects of Dr. Bolte Taylor’s story are fascinating and well-told but it is the blending of the human and the spiritual that is most unexpected. From the first moment of her stroke, she describes the “seductive, welcome silence” from the “brain chatter” of her left brain; the “inward focus,” and the pleasant feeling of being “at one” with her body, “ethereal,” in a state of “peaceful grace.” These factors initiate her “stroke of insight.”
Dr. Bolte Taylor spends few words relating her pain, brain surgery and the eight years of difficult physical, speech and occupational therapy. She writes little of her losses. Instead this book is a celebration of her successes, her optimism and a guide for those who have loved ones or patients or individuals who themselves have suffered brain injury.
She does not suffer fools gladly. She comes down hard on people who are toxic, negative or demeaning. She reminds the reader that no matter how severe the loss is, no matter how different the person with brain trauma has become, that person is still unique and deserving of respect and engagement.
As her left brain “came back on line,” she realized that while she cannot be in complete control of life’s events, through the functioning of her right hemisphere, she is, ”in control of how I choose to think and feel about those things.”
Dr. Bolte Taylor advises all people to “step to the right,” to engage our “right mind” to fully experience all of life's situations.
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