Stroke of Genius: An Interview with Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor

It’s an understatement to say that for nearly all stroke survivors, a stroke is a negative experience. A blood vessel bursts inside your brain and blood fills the surrounding area, choking off millions of delicate neurons. Strokes can damage language centers, motor skills, and memory, depending on the area of the brain where they occur. So what kind of person could survive a massive stroke in her left hemisphere, struggle through eight years of rehabilitation, and end up being glad it happened?

Well, a neuroscientist, for one. When Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor suffered a stroke in 1996, she was just 37 years old. After years of studying the human brain, she found herself suddenly given a first-hand opportunity to witness the effects of a debilitating trauma to the left hemisphere of her brain — the side that is logical, rational, and marks time. With a surreal sense of distance, she witnessed her sense of reality come apart and found herself filled with a sense of oneness and connection to the energy of the universe. The part of her brain that would normally tell her where her body ended and the universe began was totally incapacitated. But for Taylor, it wasn’t just a neurological condition. It was a revelation. Her right brain, intuitive and creative, was no longer held in check by the dominant left-brain trained scientist she had previously been. Her sense of euphoria, oneness and peace was real, and had always been there — the barriers that had kept her from accessing it had simply been lifted.

Over the next eight years, her determined spirit walked the hard road to recovery, relearning language, motor skills, mathematics and, ultimately, her identity. Throughout this long process, she never lost touch with the insights that had come to her during her stroke, when her left brain was offline. In 2006, she published a memoir of her experience, titled “My Stroke of Insight.” The book became a best-seller, and Taylor was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2008. Last year, Taylor spoke at the 4th Annual Brain Education Conference. Recently, she was kind enough to answer some of our questions.

Brain World: Since your book was published, your story has been embraced by millions. How has that experience changed you?

Jill Bolte Taylor: It’s interesting that although the world has changed around me, I have not changed much at all. I had dinner one night with Paul Simon and he talked to me about fame. He said, “Fame is a lie. People who do not know you will love you. Others who do not know you will hate you. Don’t believe any of it, just be yourself and enjoy the ride.” I have taken his advice to heart and have continued to just be me. On a professional front, I now have the freedom to do what I believe is important.

BW: Has your message evolved since you first started touring and lecturing?

JBT: No, I am real clear that my point is that we are wired for deep inner peace and that we have much more control over what is going on in our heads than we were ever taught.

BW: Your experience in rehabilitation taught you the importance of bringing positive energy to others, and your power to hook into an emotion or let it pass. Do you think that’s useful to all people, regardless of the states of their brains?

JBT: Yes, we always have a choice to observe or engage. Pay attention to what is going on in your brain and choose to observe it rather than engage with it. Making the choice to recognize that you are neurocircuitry is step one.

BW: What techniques or exercises do you recommend for left-brain dominant folks who haven’t experienced the dramatic, unfiltered knowledge of their right brains?

JBT: Pay attention to when you are in your joy, your laughter, your state of prayer, your state of inner peace. Pay attention to what this feels like inside your body. Then practice rerunning that circuitry so you can run it any time you choose. My book gives lots of examples and tools.

BW: Have you been able to influence the way stroke victims are perceived and treated?

JBT: Yes, first, we now call them stroke survivors rather than stroke victims. This is very important in the way we look at these people and celebrate what they have already accomplished. The book is fresh out into the world but has already influenced many health professionals in the way they individually treat their patients. In addition, the book is now required reading for many young medical professionals. Even better, in smaller countries like France and the Netherlands, the book is influencing the physicians at the top of the medical system as well as the caregivers. The impact has already been profound.

BW: What more would you like to see done for stroke survivors?

JBT: Better rehabilitation tools for right hemisphere trauma would be terrific. Appreciating and encouraging sleep would be great. And helping these folks realize that the brain is capable of recovering quality of life over long periods of time helps change everything.

BW: What is the relationship between the euphoria and sense of oneness that you felt as your right brain became dominant after your stroke, and your assertions that your “brightness” was gone and you were not emotionally engaged with the world?

JBT: My lack of brightness felt like pressure and inhibition of function. Euphoria is a state of being, not an emotion. I think a lot of people confuse the experience I call nirvana with an emotional state of happiness. If anything, it was the state of a lack of emotion that was bliss. The absence of experience was one of bliss.

BW: In the book you write, “It was clear to me that this body functioned like a portal through which the energy of who I am can be beamed into three dimensional space.” What is the nature of that energy — would you liken it to a soul?

JBT: Different people use different language to define that which is indefinable. Some people may call that energy the soul, while others may call it chi. I prefer to call it the life-force power, but the language is not significant to me.

BW: Do you think that energy will persist after your body is gone?

JBT: My energy will change its form when I die. I have no opinion beyond what I have experienced. I do believe that we have to have this three-dimensional brain to have any relationship with this three-dimensional world, and when the brain is no longer performing its function, then the information can no longer be processed and our consciousness shifts entirely.

BW: In your stroke recovery, you invoke “the great spirit of the universe.”

JBT: It’s the life-force power of the universe. I see it as something that I dissolve back into. I dissolve back into all that is.

BW: Do you think of this spirit as personal, or universal?

JBT: I see the energy as the consciousness of the universal flow. It exists as it is, regardless of our state of being or awareness.

BW: In the book, you describe the study by Drs. Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’ Aquili about the neuroanatomy underlying spiritual experience. What makes you confident that the sense of oneness is not just a brain state, instead of a true perception of a universal force originating outside the mind?

JBT: I speak to the circuitry in our brains. We have the ability to experience everything because we have cells that perform that function. We can now show this using science. The brain is the instrument for us to speak or move our finger. Lose those cells and you lose the function. Many people with right hemisphere damage report that they have lost the ability to find God, or hear holistically. This speaks to the biological basis of our wiring.

BW: You lament that when you were younger, you had no idea of the 90-second duration of a spontaneous negative emotion. You now know that you can wait it out and then decide whether to act on it. If you could go back through time and tell your younger self the most important things you now know, what would they be?

JBT: One, I am neurocircuitry. Two, I have cognitive circuitry, emotional circuitry and physiological circuitry. I can pay attention to which circuits I am running at any moment in time and I can watch my emotional circuitry from the moment it is triggered to the time it is completely flushed out of my body. I have the power to observe this circuitry rather than engage with it and it takes less than 90 seconds for those emotional circuits to complete their cycle.

BW: Near the end of your book, you write, “Unfortunately, as a society, we do not teach our children that they need to tend carefully the garden of their minds.” How would you like to see that change?

JBT: I would like everyone to read my book with an open heart and an open mind so they can discover their own freedom as cognitive, emotional living beings.

BW: You also say your right hemisphere consciousness is eager for us to “take the next giant leap for mankind and step to the right so we can evolve this planet into the peaceful and loving place we yearn for it to be.” Can you sketch out what you think that planet would look like?

JBT: We would see our similarities rather than our differences. We would live our lives as the magnificent life-force power of the universe, honoring the life-force power of others. We would approach each other with compassion, curiosity and celebration. We would manifest our dreams in positive ways and work together to evolve ourselves into our human potential.

BW: What do you think is the first step to getting there?

JBT: Recognize that we are wired for a peaceful spirit and take the steps we need to exercise that circuitry.


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