As her brain began to shut down during her stroke, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist and spokeswoman for the Harvard Brain Bank, was fascinated by the process. The stroke left her unable to speak, walk, or remember anything about her former self. She became, in effect, a 37-year-old newborn. Once her condition stabilized, surgeons removed a golf-ball-sized clot from her brain. That was in 1996. Bolte Taylor spent the next eight years recovering and creating a new self. Her poignant TED Talk, My Stroke of Insight, went viral in 2008. Martha Henry reached her by phone at her home in Indiana.
Martha Henry: In the beginning of your recovery, you had to rely on other people’s ideas about who you were in order to regain some sense of your identity. Was that unsettling, given that other people don’t see us the way we see ourselves?
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor: No, I was very fortunate in that my mother grieved with me the loss of the character I had been. The goal was never to return to being who I had been. We celebrated that I was now free to become whatever or whomever I now was. And fortunately, I did not have children and I did not have a spouse so I did not have to perform a role. That was very freeing.
One of the jobs of our left hemisphere language centers is to define our self by saying “I am.” Through the use of brain chatter, your brain repeats over and over again the details of your life so you can remember them. My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey, by Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D.
What was it like to recover a memory? Did it feel pleasurable, like finding a lost sock?
It felt like opening a file. Like, oh, I know that. That’s all it was.
When you think about what would it be like to be an infant, and that infant comes into the world, and all that infant knows is the experience of right here, right now, that immediate environment—that’s what my life was like. It was figuring out how to understand my immediate world so that it wasn’t all just one big blend of energy, but there were actually separate things there.
It’s never been my goal to regain the details of my past, because it was my past. If I’m consumed with my past, then my attention is not to my present, and I’ve lost my present. And I don’t want to lose my present.
I was still in here—I was still me, but without the richness of the emotional and cognitive connections my life had known. So, was I really still me? How could I still be Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, when I no longer shared her life experiences, thoughts, and emotional attachments? My Stroke of Insight, Jill Bolte Taylor
Were you a different person after your stroke? Did the kind of car that you bought change?
Yeah. Before I would have bought a Ford Escort. I had five of them in a row. I found them to be an extremely reliable car. Now I’m going to have two cars. I’m at a new place in life where I’m going to have a Miata because it’s fun. It makes me happy. And then I’ll have some form of a sedan to haul people around.
Would you say that you’re more fun now?
It’s not that I’m fun, it’s that I am committed to my joy. Yeah, I think that that would translate into being more fun.
Do you cry more or less than you used to?
I would say that my emotional response is available now, so I guess more. And I care less about who cares whether or not I’m crying.
Because of the trauma of your stroke, how is your brain different from a normal brain?
I don’t think it’s different at all. I think my brain is as competent as it was pre-stroke. It cares about different things, so if does things differently, and it does different things than I would have done before, but I think my brain is 100%. Maybe even more because I’ve spent so much time paying attention to it.
It certainly has opened my understanding of how different we all are based on what circuitry is working inside of our heads. I’ll put my brain against anybody’s brain at this point.
I’d say your brain is different because it seems like you have the ability, since your recovery after your stroke, to turn off your left hemisphere at will. Is that accurate?
Yeah, well, I don’t think I turn her off. I think that I have a relationship with her. She’s a tool that I had to rebuild. That is different than before where I became the character in that left hemisphere—separate from the whole, so once I became separate, I could no longer experience the whole. But because now I retain the ability to stay in the whole, I can use her and her skill set as a tool.
Before I looked at the brain as neural circuitry, but from an academic perspective. Now I look at circuitry as an experience. I know what it feels like to be in my right brain. She feels completely different than being in my left brain. And I have two limbic systems. I know what it feels like when my right brain limbic system is stimulated and I know what it feels like when my left brain limbic system is stimulated. So I have a different way of perceiving.
But I would say I am no different from the normal population than somebody who has spent 30 years doing meditation. They have been on the same kind of journey, just in a different way.
As a long-term meditator, I know how difficult it is to stop brain chatter.
Is it really?
I know you have lots of people say this to you, but when I was in my twenties, I took psilocybin mushrooms and had the most wonderful experience of my life. The one thing I wrote in my journal then was, “you can get back here at any moment,” and I understood “the half an inch between heaven and hell.”
Exactly. You’re the first person to say that to me and really get at that, because that is exactly it.
That’s a very difficult half inch to navigate, but it seems like it’s not difficult for you. Do you understand how you do that?
If I want to shift into the present moment, I do it in a variety of ways. The biggest one for me is to look outside. Right now, I’m looking out the window. I live in the woods, so my backyard is a neural network. Right now, it’s a neural network of naked beautiful trees. And I’m a neuron. That’s how I visualize myself. I’m a neuron and these trees are beautiful pyramidal cells. I’m a part of this network, and as soon as I allow myself to become that, I shut off the garbage in my head and it’s lovely.
If you feel lonely, can you just switch off your left brain and basically feel at one with the universe?
Yeah, if I feel lonely, I’m really good at turning to my music, or turning to the art zone, whether it’s my glass or stone work. Or I go to the yard. Or I go into nature. I’m really good at taking care of myself.
At the same time, I want to figure things out, which means I have to use that character of the left brain. That character can feel anger, hostility, sadness, loneliness—all of that, so I limit how much time I’m willing to spend there in order to figure something out.
After your stroke and the operation to remove a clot in your brain the size of a golf ball, you talk about choosing “the chaos of recovery over the peaceful tranquility of the divine bliss that I had found in the absence of the judgment of my left mind.” Was that really a choice? If you had stayed entirely in your right brain, what would have happened? How would your life have unfolded?
I think that I’d be in a nursing home somewhere in an almost vegetative condition. I just wouldn’t have tried. I would have shut it all off and said, I don’t need that. I wouldn’t have tried.
In place of that constant chatter that had attached me to the details of my life, I felt enfolded by a blanket of tranquil euphoria. How fortunate I was that the portion of my brain that registered fear, my amygdala, had not reacted with alarm to these unusual circumstances and shifted me into a state of panic. As the language centers in my left hemisphere grew increasingly silent and I became detached from the memories of my life, I was comforted by an expanding sense of grace. My Stroke of Insight, Jill Bolte Taylor
And would you have remained this cocoon of bliss with no connection to the world?
I think I would have. Because it’s an experience. It’s a feeling and a being and a knowing. I still would have to have existed in this body, and the body is a painful place when it’s not functioning well. And the noise, the sound. I visit people who are in states of various levels of what would be described as coma or vegetative condition. I’m extremely sympathetic to their physical pain. If they’re sitting in a wheelchair and their neck is at a 90-degree angle and their pelvises are scrunched, there’s no flow there. There’s no peace in that mass of biology. And they’ve got noise blaring at them because we think we need to stimulate these people with loud TVs in their faces.
The bliss for me was the absence of higher cognition. Essentially being an infant. If my needs are being met, do I have a reason to not be in a blissful condition?
Since you gave your TED Talk, My Stroke of Insight, in 2008, it has gotten over 20 million views. Why do you think it’s so popular?
It was the first TED Talk to ever go viral, so TED and I kind of became instantly famous together. First of all, having a stroke, being in your prime, losing your mind, losing your brain, being a brain scientist at Harvard—that credential helped a lot—and bringing out the human brain on the stage. Definitely I had people’s attention.
I knew that in eighteen minutes I had to give the audience the experience of stroke. They had to feel it or it would just be an eighteen-minute talk about a problem. In order to give them the experience, I walked them, moment-by-moment through the experience of losing my faculties.
In the final six minutes, I was going to teach what I had learned. Instead of doing that, I chose to hold the space, just hold that space of open, connected vulnerability. Take them on this journey to where I went and hold that space and let them feel that and be that. My audience was weeping audibly. The level of connection. The emails that I still get everyday, I saw this TED Talk and I was weeping through the Internet.
So I think that it takes us to the essence of who we are and the beauty that we have this peace inside of ourselves. This peace is the best part of who we are and it is attainable. It’s not just, I have to have faith and I have to pray to God and God’s outside of me and I can’t get past that. Or I have to meditate for 30 years in order to be able get an inkling of that experience. It is right here right now and oh, my god, there’s hope. I think that’s why—that combination of things—our most vulnerable humanness.
Block quotes are from Jill Bolte Taylor’s book, My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey. Drawings of neurons courtesy of the National Library of Medicine