Day 18: Stroke of Insight

by ashleighpenrod

Continuing the series of people you should know, I’m highlighting one of my favorite brain research scientists, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. If you and I know each other personally, I’ve probably (definitely) already made you watch her TED Talk or lent you her book, “My Stroke of Insight.” (Actually, I’m missing my copy, so if I lent it to you, let me know.)

Jill Bolte Taylor

Inspired by her brother’s schizophrenia, Taylor began her career by researching severe mental illnesses at Harvard. A dedicated and renowned neuroanatomist, she split time between intensive brain study and advocacy work with NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

In 1996, at 37 years old, a blood vessel in her brain’s left hemisphere exploded. She had a stroke.

The morning of her stroke, Taylor became aware that something extraordinary was happening. As she went about her normal routine and wavered between types of consciousness, she recognized she was having a stroke when her right arm went numb. According to her reflection on the experience, she thought, “Wow, this is so cool! How many brain scientists have the opportunity to study their own brain from the inside out?”

So, semi-aware but not entirely logical, she researched herself through the process of losing all function in her left hemisphere. As the hemorrhage spread, she could not read, write or identify herself as a being separate from her environment. One of the most intriguing parts of her incredibly intriguing TED talk is when she describes realizing the gravity of her situation and trying to call for help. In order to reach a colleague without being able to recognize numbers, she matched “the shape of the squiggles” on a business card to the “shape of the squiggles on the phone pad.”

(Seriously, watch her TED Talk. It’s poignant, funny, frightening and beautiful.)

When not engaged with the warning bells of her logical and ego-centered left hemisphere, Taylor experienced a euphoric uniting of herself with the entire world; in the midst of trauma, she had a powerful sense of peace and wonder.

The right sides of our brains recognize beauty and connectivity, and when fully engaged, release us from all the mundane concerns of living a life. Taylor’s post-stroke insights into the structure of the brain teach us that we can choose where to exist at any given moment. We can be peaceful, cellular beings in flow with the rest of the universe, or separate individuals with distinct personalities, goals and responsibilities. Her position is that the more time we spend engaged with our right hemispheres, the more peace we project into the world—and the more peaceful the world becomes.

What strikes me about her research is that we rely on our critical, categorizing, judging left hemispheres in order to survive. But without our present-moment, satisfied, universally conscious right hemispheres, there would be nothing to live for.

On this lucky and/or apocalyptic day (12/12/12), it’s something to think about.