'The molecules and atoms of me were spinning in parallel with those outside of me. Everything was in motion.1
JILL BOLTE TAYLOR TALKS TO LIANNE GEORGE ABOUT WHAT IT FEELS LIKE, PLAY-BY-PLAY, TO BE A BRAIN SCIENTIST HAVING A STROKE
In 1996, Taylor, then a 37-year-old neuroanatomist at Harvard, experienced a massive stroke when a blood vessel burst in the left hemisphere of her brain, the result of a rare congenital disorder called AVM. The hemorrhaging produced a blot clot the size of golf ball, disrupting her left brain and leaving her in an infant-like state. After a harrowing surgery—and eight painstaking years of recovery—Taylor is back teaching brain science at the Indiana University School of Medicine. In her new book, My Stroke of Insight, she explains what it’s like to have a stroke—and how what she’s learned about the two sides of the human brain can help anyone to live a happier, healthier life.
Q Can you explain the basic functions of the right and left hemispheres?
A: Sure. The left hemisphere is my ability to communicate with the external world through the creation and comprehension of language. It’s the details of my life, and the identification of me as an individual—the file that says, “I am Jill Bolte Taylor.” My right hemisphere is just this enormous collage of sensory stimulation exploding into an experience of right here, right now.
Q: You say we live in left-brain culture.
A: Absolutely. That’s how we are rewarded in our society—for developing our individual stories, for training our left hemispheres to perform better, to learn more details, to become specialists in our areas of expertise-
that’s all the left hemisphere.
Q: As a scientist—a very left-brain occupation—you took a very rational approach to waking up with a strange, pulsing pain behind your left eye on the morning of the stroke.
A: That’s right. I didn’t like the pain and I didn’t think laying there would help it so I thought I’d just start my normal routine. I really innocently thought that exercise would be a good idea. As I was getting up, the light in the room was very painful. Then I got on the cardio-glider and I felt detached from myself. I looked at my hands and they literally looked like claws grasping onto the bar, and I really became so aware that I was this very weird looking thing.
Q: How strange. What happened next?
A: The headache wasn’t getting any better. So I got off the machine and I was walking across my living room and there was just this very slowed down nature to it. Everything shifted. All of my focus went entirely on the internal workings of my body. I was getting into my tub and as I lifted my foot, I could actually hear this conversation going on at what seemed to be the cellular level where one group of cells is saying, “Okay, you guys have to contract. You muscles, you relax,” and then I lost my balance and it was like, “Uh oh, you’d better catch her, she’s going over.” Then I land up against the bathroom wall and I’m looking down at myself against the wall realizing I don’t know where I begin and where I end.
Q: You talk a lot about feeling fluid, no longer
perceiving yourself as a separate entity.
A: The boundaries were gone and I was nothing more than cellular molecular life, if you will. When you stop and think about what you are as a living entity, a conglomeration of trillions of little cells, then you’re very aware that you’re 80 per cent fluid. I was a fluid in a very fluid environment. Everything was in motion.
Q: It sounds awful, but you weren’t afraid.
A: No, I was very fortunate. I was just trying to figure out what was going on.
Q: How did your scientific training shape this process for you? Were you intellectually tracking things as they happened?
A: I was. I’m trying to figure out what’s wrong with me and at the same time trying to figure out which portions of my brain are involved in this process.
Q: At what point did you think maybe you were having a stroke?
A: I didn’t know until my right arm went totally paralyzed.
Q: In the book, you said how cool that moment was. How is that possible?
A: I had no perception that I was going to be as ill as I became. I was just entertaining the idea that there was this weird neurological phenomenon going on and here I had the opportunity to observe it, witness it from the inside, document it.
Q: Why didn’t you get help right away?
A: It was a hemorrhage in the left hemisphere and 911 is a group of cells, essentially, that understand what 911 is—those cells were
swimming in a pool of blood so they weren’t there to say, “Hey, call 911.”
Q: Was it a gradual stripping away of brain functions—first numbers, then language, and so on—or did everything shut off at once?
A Language as was anything related to language—numwas on that and was off bers, brain chatter, and my ability to identify myself as an individual—“I am Jill Boite Taylor.” I would have waves of clarity and that’s when language was back on.
Q: Otherwise, you were pretty much parked in your right brain. What did that feel like?
A: It was this incredible, seductive, magnificent experience of the present moment which was pure euphoria. I wasn’t stressed out waiting for the next wave of clarity.
Q: You eventually got the help you needed, but the stroke left you severely debilitated. How did you get from struggling to figure out simple children’s puzzles to where you are now, fully recovered? Did you literally relearn things or was it a matter of reactivating parts of your brain so information could flood back?
A: Nothing ever came flooding back. It was like opening very specific files and trying to figure out, “Do I have old files on these subjects that I can re-identify and reopen or not?” When my mother was teaching me about the puzzles she said to me, “You can use colour as a clue.” Well, colour had never crossed my mind as a clue even though I was looking at and holding these two very different pieces that obviously, colour wise, did not work together. I didn’t see it. But once she opened that file for me, then I had access to colour to apply to everything.
Q: Your mother sounds like a phenomenal caregiver. In those early days, did you understand she was your mother, even intuitively?
A: No. It was clear that everybody was giving her the power of my decision-making and my care. It was obvious that she was a person in my life who was going to be in charge of my well-being. But I had no recollection of any of my family. We had to go through family photos in order for me to start piecing it back together again. Some files would open, some will probably never open. Over the course of time I have regained some memories, but the beauty of losing your mind is you don’t know what you’ve lost.
Q: Do you think your training gave you an advantage in recovery?
A: Total advantage. The biggest advantage is that I absolutely adore the brain and I believe in the ability of the brain to recover itself. I was just fortunate that my mother was willing to listen to my brain instead of to traditional rehabilitation.
Q: What’s wrong with traditional rehab?
A: A typical rehab is going to take someone, put them in a rehab or nursing home environment, wake them up at 6:30 in the morning, pump them with amphetamines, prop them up in a wheelchair, stick them in a social environment where there’s a TV blaring in their face, and they call this a healthy environment. No, I don’t think so.
Q: So what did you do differently?
A: The first thing was to allow my brain to sleep when it was absolutely exhausted. Also, once I became well enough, I really applied my neuroanatomical knowledge to figuring out how to get from A to B to C.
Q: Was it ever traumatic when memories would return?
A: No, just when the emotions would. When I first felt anger rising in my body, I was absolutely blown away by the power of the feeling and I did not like it.
Q: So emotion stems from the left brain?
A: It certainly came from my circuitry that had been wounded. It was quite a while before I had any experience of anger. Then as that left-hemisphere circuitry became better and my old emotional circuitry came back online, some emotions were acceptable and some were just awful and I said no.
Q: Literally, you’d choose not to take it on?
A: Yes, I’d say, “I’m going to stop thinking those thoughts that trigger that, but isn’t it fascinating that I have that?”
Q: So when people talk about the spiritual brain, are they talking about the right-brain experience you describe?
A: Yeah, I think both hemispheres are always functioning and deep inner peace is always present. It’s always a choice. If I’m attached to my drama, the pain in my past, and I’m not willing to put it aside, that’s my left brain interfering with the purity of having that right-hemisphere consciousness.
Q: So you’re saying we all have a built-in release valve but few of us realize it’s there?
A: Yes, yes we do, and if you’re lucky, you know how to push that release valve and utilize it in a constructive way in your life—go on vacation, take mental health days, belly laugh, don’t take yourself so seriously, exercise.
Q: This is what you call a “balanced-brain” approach to living?
A: Yeah. If you look at any normal system, you have a push and then you have a pause. You absolutely have to have the pause because if you push, push, push, the system will burn out and die, or blow up if it’s a machine. The way I look at it is that the right hemisphere is the pause. And the push into the world is the left hemisphere. When you balance them you can maximize the efficiency of the entire system. This is a huge argument in favour of having elementary schools have art, music, and physical education, not just because
they’re aesthetically good things, but because of how they develop a more balanced brain.
Q: How can the average person tell if she’s operating from the left brain or right brain?
A: I think the easiest thing is to recognize when you’re having these two very different experiences. When are you feeling right-hemisphere dominant? When are you lost in time— you’ve got a sense of celebration and joy in your heart, you’re laughing, you’re feeling loving and compassionate? Hopefully you know that piece of yourself. What does it feel like inside of your body when you’re there? Pay attention to that and your ability to go back there at any time. Ask yourself, when you’re feeling stressed out, what alternative way of looking at this moment do I have?
Q: Are you now able to access this right brain consciousness any time you choose?
A: I am so clear on when I’m present and when I’m in the left hemisphere. I flew home this morning. In the seat behind me is a gentleman who reeks of alcohol. He is discombobulated, complaining, and he just stinks. I immediately feel my left hemisphere going into judgment and I’m kind of laughing at myself because I’m listening to my left hemisphere scolding him, saying, “Shut up, nobody wants to hear what you’re whining about.” But my right hemisphere, it’s more sympathetic to him. So both of my hemispheres are routinely online. I can instantly become judgmental, or I can lighten up. M
I regained some memories, but the beauty of losing your mind is that you don't know what you've lost'
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