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From the Townsend Letter
June 2009

Book Review
Taylor's Stroke and Insight
review by Jule Klotter

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My Stroke of Insight
by Jill Bolte Taylor, PhD
Viking, Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014
©2008; 184 pp; $24.95 US; $27.50 Canada.

On December 10, 1996, Jill Bolte Taylor, age 37, had a hemorrhagic stroke. "Within four brief hours," she writes, "I watched my mind completely deteriorate in its ability to process all stimulation coming in through my senses. This rare form of hemorrhage rendered me completely disabled whereby I could not walk, talk, read, write, or recall any aspects of my life." She observed her deterioration and recovery with the precision and enthusiasm of a scientist. Taylor has a PhD from Indiana State University Department of Life Science with a research specialty in neuroanatomy and, at the time of the stroke, held a postdoctoral research position at Harvard Medical School's Department of Neuroscience. My Stroke of Insight is about that December day, her recovery, and more. Her book tells how she found and retained access to deep inner peace – "Nirvana" – which she believes resides in the right side of the brain.

Taylor's stroke occurred when a congenital arteriovenous malformation in her left brain gave way. The left hemisphere of the brain holds the skills that let us interact with our environment, such as language, movement, and spatial context. When her language center went off line, Taylor could not understand speech. Without the detail-oriented, categorizing left brain, Taylor thought with pictures and relied on voice tone, nonverbal cues, and relationship patterns to interpret her environment. In addition, her "brain chatter" with its perpetual commentary stopped. She experienced a timeless sense of peace and oneness in the present moment. To observers, however, Taylor "was quite a mess" on the day of the stroke. "I was like a newborn unable to make sense of the sensory stimulation in the physical space around me," she writes.

Despite the stroke's grievous effect, Taylor had two major factors bolstering her recovery: her own understanding of the brain's plasticity and the support of her mother, G. G. Even though some of Taylor's brain cells were irrevocably damaged, she knew that she could retrain the circuitry to take over lost functions. "Scientists are well aware that the brain has tremendous ability to change its connections based upon its incoming stimulation," she explains in her book. Stimulation propels neurons to interact with other neurons. Without interaction, neurons die.

Taylor did not wait for speech, occupational, or physical therapy. She and her mother began work immediately. Her mother broke down tasks into steps, as if teaching a very young child. "It was as if I had an infant brain again," Taylor writes, "and had to learn virtually everything from scratch. I was back to the basics. How to walk. How to talk. How to read. How to write. How to put a puzzle together. The process of physical recovery was just like stages of normal development." With patience, encouragement, and plenty of sleep (her brain's "filing time"), Taylor regained access to what she still knew and forged new brain circuitry for what she needed to relearn.

A little over two weeks after the stroke, surgeons removed a golf-ball-sized blood clot from Taylor's left brain. A few weeks later, her brain "chatter" reappeared. At this point, Taylor made a conscious decision to retain her right-brain perspective and values as much as she could. She did not want her newly discovered sense of oneness to be overrun by left-brain judgments, arguments, and fears. She paid attention to her emotional responses to her left brain's chatter. Being a neuroscientist, Taylor knew that the chemical response to an automatic emotional response from the limbic system floods the body, then dissipates within 90 seconds. Any negative emotion that lasts longer than 90 seconds is the result of negative self-talk and storytelling by the left brain.

Taylor began to tend to her thoughts as if they were weeds or flowers in a garden. Whenever her left brain started chattering messages that caused prolonged negative emotional responses, Taylor diverted her attention to some fascinating project or joyful subject; or she used positive affirmations. "My stroke of insight," she explains, "is that at the core of my right hemisphere consciousness is a character that is directly connected to my feeling of deep inner peace. It is completely committed to the expression of peace, love, joy, and compassion in the world. The more conscious attention we pay to any particular circuit, or the more time we spend thinking specific thoughts, the more impetus those circuits or thought patterns have to run again with minimal external stimulation."

Jill Bolte Taylor was able to walk, speak, drive a car, even give a brief talk at a conference within months of her stroke; but walking smoothly, reading, doing arithmetic, and relearning the language of neuroanatomy took longer. Taylor did not consider herself fully recovered until eight years after the stroke. Throughout that time, she noticed "significant improvement in [her] brain's ability to learn and function."

Taylor says, "No two brains are absolutely identical in their structure, connections or ability to recover [from a stroke]." Her own experience, however, indicates that the medical community does not always know how to communicate with stroke patients or how to help them recover. The community also tends to underestimate the brain's ability to adapt and form new circuits.

My Stroke of Insight is a gift, a gift to practitioners and family members who wonder how to help stroke patients, and to anyone who seeks a better understanding of the brain and balanced-brain living.


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