My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey

Overview

On December 10, 1996, Jill Bolte Taylor, a thirty-seven-year-old Harvard-trained brain scientist, experienced a massive stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain. As she observed her mind deteriorate to the point that she could not walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of her life-all within four hours-Taylor alternated between the euphoria of the intuitive and kinesthetic right brain, in which she felt a sense of complete well-being and peace, and the logical, sequential left brain, which recognized she was ...

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My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey

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Overview

On December 10, 1996, Jill Bolte Taylor, a thirty-seven-year-old Harvard-trained brain scientist, experienced a massive stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain. As she observed her mind deteriorate to the point that she could not walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of her life-all within four hours-Taylor alternated between the euphoria of the intuitive and kinesthetic right brain, in which she felt a sense of complete well-being and peace, and the logical, sequential left brain, which recognized she was having a stroke and enabled her to seek help before she was completely lost. It would take her eight years to fully recover.

For Taylor, the stroke was a blessing and a revelation. It taught her that by "stepping to the right" of our left brains, we can all uncover feelings of well-being that are often sidelined by "brain chatter." In My Stroke of Insight, Taylor provides a valuable recovery guide for those touched by brain injury and an inspiring testimony that inner peace is accessible to anyone.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In 1996, 37-year-old neuroanatomist Taylor experienced a massive stroke that erased her abilities to walk, talk, do mathematics, read, or remember details. Her remarkable story details her slow recovery of those abilities (and the cultivation of new ones) and recounts exactly what happened with her brain. Read proficiently by the author, this is a fascinating memoir of the brain's remarkable resiliency and of one woman's determination to regain her faculties and recount her experience for the benefit of others. Taylor repeatedly describes her "stroke of insight"-a tremendous gratitude for, and connection with, the cells of her body and of every living thing-and says that although she is fully recovered, she is not the same driven, type-A scientist that she was before the stroke. Her holistic approach to healing will be valuable to stroke survivors and their caregivers, who can pick up suggestions from Taylor's moving accounts of how her mother faithfully loved her back to life. A Viking hardcover.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Robert Koehler
Fascinating. . . . Bursts with hope for everyone who is brain-injured (not just stroke patients) and gives medical practitioners clear, no-nonsense information about the shortcomings of conventional treatment and attitudes toward the brain- injured. . . . But to my mind, what makes My Stroke of Insight not just valuable but invaluable—a gift to every spiritual seeker and peace activist—is what I would describe as Taylor's fearless mapping of the physiology of compassion, the physiology of Nirvana. This book is about the wonder of being human.
Tribune Media Services
Library Journal

Taylor is a successful neuroanatomist and an advocate for the mentally ill. In 1996, at age 37, a blood vessel exploded in her brain, triggering a massive stroke. This account of the event and its aftermath is not a dry presentation of medical facts but a warm retelling of how the author's family and friends helped her in her eight-year-long ordeal. Taylor manages to buttress her life experiences with solid facts without diminishing the story's personal, human aspects. She does an excellent job with the reading, speaking in a personal manner and holding listeners' attention. Moving and informative; recommended for public libraries. [Audio clip available through us.penguingroup.com; watch Taylor on Oprah's Soul Series™ webcast at oongua.notlong.com.-Ed.]
—Stephen L. Hupp

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9789862162842
  • Publisher: Tian Xia Wen Hua
  • Publication date: 11/28/2009
  • Language: Chinese
  • Pages: 293
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Jill Bolte Taylor is a neuroanatomist who teaches at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Bloomington, Indiana. She is the National Spokesperson for the Mentally Ill for the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center (Brain Bank) and the Consulting Neuroantomist for the Midwest Proton Radiotherapy Institute. Since 1993 she has been an active member of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). Her story has been featured on the PBS program Understanding Amazing Brain, among others. She was interviewed on NPR’s Infinite Mind and ABC News, and was named one of The 100 of the World’s Most Influential People of 2008 in Time Magazine.

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Read an Excerpt

It was 7:00 am on December 10, 1996. I sluggishly awoke to a sharp pain piercing my brain directly behind my left eye. Squinting into the early morning light, I clicked off the impending alarm with my right hand and instinctively pressed the palm of my left hand firmly against the side of my face. Rarely ill, I thought how queer it was for me to awaken to such a striking pain. As my left eye pulsed with a slow and deliberate rhythm, I felt bewildered and irritated.

As I rolled out of my warm waterbed, I stumbled into the world with the ambivalence of a wounded soldier. I closed the bedroom window blind to block the incoming stream of light from stinging my eyes. I decided that exercise might get my blood flowing and perhaps help dissipate the pain. Within moments, I hopped on to my "cardio-glider" (a full body exercise machine) and began jamming away to Shania Twain singing the lyrics, "Whose bed have your boots been under?". Immediately, I felt a powerful and unusual sense of dissociation roll over me. Even though my thoughts seemed lucid, my body felt irregular. As I watched my hands and arms rocking forward and back, forward and back, in opposing synchrony with my torso, I felt strangely detached from my normal cognitive functions. It was as if the integrity of my mind/body connection had somehow become compromised.

Feeling detached from normal reality, I felt as though I was observing myself in motion, as in the playback of a memory, as if my conscious mind was suspended somewhere between my normal reality and some esoteric space. I was sure I was awake, yet, I felt as if I was trapped inside the perception of a meditation that I could neither stop nor escape. Dazed, I felt the frequency of shooting pangs escalate inside my brain, and I realized that this exercise regime was probably not a good idea.

Feeling a little nervous about my physical condition, I climbed off the machine and bumbled through my living room on the way to the bath. As I walked, I noticed that my movements were no longer fluid. Instead they felt deliberate and almost jerky. There was no grace to my pace and my balance was so impaired that my mind seemed completely preoccupied with just keeping me upright.

As I lifted my leg to step into the tub, I held on to the wall for support. It seemed odd that I could sense the inner activities of my brain as it adjusted and readjusted all of the opposing muscle groups in my lower extremities to prevent me from falling over. I was momentarily privy to a precise and experiential understanding of how hard the fifty trillion cells in my brain and body were working in perfect unison to maintain the flexibility and integrity of my physical form.

Ignorant to the degree of danger my body was in, I balanced my weight against the shower wall. As I leaned forward to turn on the faucet, I was startled by an abrupt and exaggerated clamor as water surged into the tub. This unexpected amplification of sound was both enlightening and disturbing. It brought me to the realization that, in addition to having problems with coordination and equilibrium, my ability to process incoming sound (auditory information) was erratic. For the first time, I considered the possibility that I was perhaps having a major neurological malfunction that was life threatening.

In that instant, I suddenly felt vulnerable, and I noticed that the constant brain chatter that routinely familiarized me with my surroundings was no longer a predictable and constant flow of conversation. Instead, my verbal thoughts were now inconsistent, fragmented, and interrupted by an intermittent silence.

As my brain chatter began to disintegrate, I felt an odd sense of isolation. My blood pressure must have been dropping as a result of the bleeding in my brain because I felt as if all of my systems, including my mind's ability to instigate movement, were moving into a slow mode of operation. Yet, even though my thoughts were no longer a constant stream of chatter about the external world and my relationship to it, I was conscious and constantly present within my mind.

What is going on? I wondered. Have I ever experienced anything like this before? Have I ever felt like this before? This feels like a migraine. What is happening in my brain?

The harder I tried to concentrate, the more fleeting my ideas seemed to be. Instead of finding answers and information, I met a growing sense of peace. As the language centers in my left hemisphere grew increasingly silent, my consciousness soared into an all-knowingness, a "being at one" with the universe, if you will. In a compelling sort of way, it felt like the good road home and I liked it.

By this point I had lost touch with much of the physical three-dimensional reality that surrounded me. My body was propped up against the shower wall and I found it odd that I was aware that I could no longer clearly discern the physical boundaries of where I began and where I ended. Instead, I now blended in with the space and flow around me.

When the shower droplets beat into my chest like little bullets, I was harshly startled back into this reality. As I held my hands up in front of my face and wiggled my fingers, I was simultaneously perplexed and intrigued. Wow, what a strange and amazing thing I am. What a bizarre living being I am. Life! I am life! I am trillions of cells sharing a common mind. I am here, now, thriving as life. Wow! What an unfathomable concept!

In this altered state of being, my mind was no longer preoccupied with that brain chatter that customarily kept me abreast of myself in relation to the world outside of me. In the absence of those little voices my memories of the past and my dreams of the future evaporated. I was alone.

I must admit that the growing void in my traumatized brain was entirely seductive. I eagerly turned my focus inward to the steadfast drumming of the trillions of brilliant cells that worked diligently and synchronously to maintain my body's steady state of homeostasis. As the blood poured in over my brain, my consciousness slowed to a soothing and satisfying awareness that embraced the vast and wondrous world within. I was both fascinated and humbled by how hard my little cells worked, moment by moment, just to maintain the integrity of my existence in this physical form.

For the first time, I felt truly at one with my body as a complex construction of living, thriving organisms. I was proud to see that I was this swarming conglomeration of cellular life that had stemmed from the intelligence of a single molecular genius! As my consciousness slipped into a state of peaceful grace, I felt ethereal. Although the pulse of pain in my brain was inescapable, it was not debilitating.

Standing there with the water pounding onto my breasts, a tingling sensation surged through my chest and forcefully radiated upward into my throat. Startled, I became instantly aware that I was in grave danger. Shocked back into this external reality, I immediately reassessed the abnormalities of my physical systems. Determined to understand what was going on, I actively scanned my reservoir of education in demand of a self-diagnosis. What is going on with my body? What is wrong with my brain?

I was literally thrown off balance when my right arm dropped completely paralyzed against my side. In that moment I knew. Oh my gosh, I'm having a stroke! I'm having a stroke! And in the next instant, the thought flashed through my mind, Wow, this is so cool!

I kept thinking, Wow, how many scientists have the opportunity to study their own brain function and mental deterioration from the inside out ? My entire life had been dedicated to my own understanding of how the human brain creates our perception of reality. And now I was experiencing this most remarkable stroke of insight!

I wondered if it would ever be normal again. I fathomed the gravity of my immediate situation. Although I was compelled by a sense of urgency to orchestrate my rescue, another part of me delighted in the euphoria of my irrationality. I stepped across the threshold of my bedroom, and as I gazed into the eyes of my reflected image, I paused for a moment, in search of some guidance or profound insight. In the wisdom of my dementia, I understood that my body was, by the magnificence of its biological design, a precious and fragile gift.

Even in this condition, the egotistical mind of my left hemisphere arrogantly retained the belief that although I was experiencing a dramatic mental incapacity, my life was invincible. Optimistically, I believed that I would recover completely from this morning's events. Feeling a little irritated by this impromptu disruption of my work schedule, I bantered, Okay, well, I'm having a stroke. Yep, I'm having a stroke…but I'm a very busy woman! All right, since I can't stop this stroke from happening, then, okay, I'll do this for a week! I'll learn what I need to know about how my brain creates my perception of reality and then I'll meet my schedule, next week. Now, what am I doing? Getting help. I must stay focused and get help. To my counterpart in the looking glass I pleaded, Remember, please remember everything you are experiencing! Let this be my stroke of insight into the disintegration of my own cognitive mind.

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from MY STROKE OF INSIGHT
Copyright © MY STROKE OF INSIGHT, INC., 2008

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Table of Contents

1 Jill's Pre-Stroke Life 5

2 Simple Science 12

3 Hemispheric Asymmetries 27

4 Morning of the Stroke 37

5 Orchestrating My Rescue 47

6 My Return to the Still 56

7 Bare to the Bone 64

8 Neurological Intensive Care 74

9 Day Two: The Morning After 81

10 Day Three: G.G. Comes to Town 86

11 Healing and Preparing for Surgery 93

12 Stereotactic Craniotomy 108

13 What I Needed the Most 110

14 Milestones for Recovery 122

15 My Stroke of Insight 131

16 My Right and Left Minds 137

17 Own Your Power 146

18 Cells and Multidimensional Circuitry 149

19 Finding Your Deep Inner Peace 159

20 Tending the Garden 175

Recommendations for Recovery

Appendix A Ten Assessment Questions 179

Appendix B Forty Things I Needed Most 181

The Harvard Brain Bank 184

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Interviews & Essays

1. 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?

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.

2. What was your immediate reaction?

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.

3. As a neuroanatomist, you're an expert on the brain. What was the most unexpected thing you learned from actually having a stroke?

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.

4. What helped you the most during your decade of recovery?

I owe my entire ability to recover to my mother GG Taylor. She cameto 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.

5. Now that you've experienced living in your right brain, can you go back to that euphoric place at will?

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.

6. 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?

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.

7. And what can your readers learn from your experience?

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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