CLR INTERVIEW: In 1996, Harvard neuroatomist Jill Bolte Taylor, suffered a massive stroke at the age of 37. Her new book, My Stroke of Insight, recounts that event, the subsequent years of rehabilitation, and what she has learned about the way our brains function. Below is Jill’s interview with the California Literary Review.
- My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey
- Viking Adult, 192 pp.
Would you give us a brief overview of the different roles played by the left and right sides of our brains?
The right brain is all about the big picture. It thinks in pictures and it looks at everything as connected. It experiences everything as radiating energy and is intimately connected to the kinesthetic movement and learning of our bodies. It is our intuition, which includes our ability to look at the big picture and see if everything is fitting together in a way that makes sense. It is all about the present moment experience of now.
The left brain is all about breaking our lives down into details. It thinks in language and uses words to communicate what it is thinking. It thinks linearly and knows that we need to put our socks on before our shoes and why. It is capable of connecting our thoughts with thoughts in our past, giving linearity to our thinking. It is our identity, the cells that say ‘I am an individual’ and these are all the details of my life. It defines things as right or wrong, good or bad.
Which part of your brain was affected by your stroke and how did it impact you?
I had a rare congenital malformation in the blood vessels of my left hemisphere and at the age of 37 the malformation (AVM) blew and resulted in a major hemorrhage in the left half of my brain. On the morning of the stroke, I could not walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of my life. I describe myself as an infant in a woman’s body.
One of the most touching moments in your book is when your mother first greeted you in your hospital room. Would you tell us about that and the ways in which your mother helped you through your recovery?
My mother G.G. was a true angel in my life. She was in my home state of Indiana when I had the hemorrhage in Boston. It was two weeks before Christmas and when she heard the news of my illness, my boss encouraged her to take a few days to prepare for coming out to the Boston area for an extended visit, as I would need some long term care. G.G. arrived on the morning of day three post-stroke and as she came into my hospital room she made eye contact with me, greeted appropriately the physicians and colleagues in the room and then proceeded to lift the sheet, crawl into bed with me and start rocking me as though I was her infant again. She understood that I was no longer her ‘Harvard doctor daughter’ as she had affectionately called me. I was now her infant again and we began a new relationship with one another that morning. Over the next few months, G.G. was my constant companion and she taught me how to walk and talk, read and write and helped me get strong enough to endure the calculated hit of brain surgery. I would not be here, as functional as I am, if it were not for her.
If you could change something about the way stroke rehabilitation is performed in this country, what would it be?
I would look at stroke survivors and what they needed based upon what their brain cells need in order to recover. I was given the opportunity to sleep as much as my brain said I needed to sleep. It is traditional in our society to wake people up early and force them into loud and noisy social environments. I think our brains would recover much more quickly and effectively if we allowed the cells to recover their health and trust that once the cells were recovered then they would regain their capacity for function.
Gestalt therapy played a role in your recovery. What is Gestalt therapy and how did it help you?
I worked with a Gestalt therapist to help me piece together the morning of the stroke. My right mind remembered the moments and the experiences that morning but when my left mind went off-line, I lost all linearity to my thoughts. Gestalt therapists focus on the present moment experience and this form of therapy helped me place language on the kinesthetic reenactment of the morning of the stroke.
I know you’re the spokesperson for the Harvard Brain Bank. Would you tell us a little about its purpose?
There is a long-term shortage of brain tissue donated for research into the severe mental illnesses. Many people think that they are a brain donor if they have signed the back of their driver’s license. Unfortunately, the brain is excluded from this program so if you have any interest in donating your brain for research, you must call a brain bank directly. I represent the Harvard Brain Bank because they are available 24/7 and the machine works. If you need to do a donation in the middle of the night in rural America, they can make it happen.
After rebuilding and retraining your left-brain for many years, in what ways are you the same as the pre-stroke Jill, and in what ways are you different?
I am no longer focused on my career and my success as I climb the Harvard ladder. My focus is more humanitarian and compassionate than before. I am more about the ‘we’ than about the ‘me’.
“Right-brain land” sounds like a wonderful place to hang out, and you seem to easily be able to go there. Do you have any advice for the rest of us on how to engage that part of our brain?
I realized that the hokey pokey is really what it is all about! Remember that goofy song and dance? Try doing the hokey pokey for three minutes and then ask yourself if you don’t feel better, more present, more excited and more happy than before you started! If that does not help shift you into your right hemisphere consciousness, try the next to last chapter in My Stroke of Insight, as there are lots of different ideas to choose from.
What advice can you give people on how to interact with those who have mental illness or brain damage?
People with mental illness or brain damage are differently abled than the normal population. They are perfect and whole and beautiful just the way they are. Treat them with respect, love and compassion. Treat them like you would hope others would treat you if it were you with that different circuitry.
About your pre-stroke life, you write “For all those years of my life, I really had been a figment of my own imagination.” Hindus have the concept of Maya, which claims that our existence is an illusion, or at best, a fleeting reality. Do you have a sense that the oneness you perceive from your right-brain is a glimpse into a higher Truth (what a Hindu would call Brahman)? Or do you see it as just a different ways of perceiving, no more “real” than the view from the left-brain?
I think we have our abilities because we have cells that perform that function. I think we have cells and circuits of cells that when dis-inhibited allow us to have the experience of ‘being at ONE with all that is”. I might call that brain circuitry, someone else might call that a near death experience, someone else might call that Brahman, someone else might call that a spiritual enlightenment. I think it is the job of our left hemispheres to place language on right hemisphere experiences, which, by their nature, are beyond words and fine description. Our relationship between the two hemispheres certainly keeps the mystery, and conversation, alive!