Chris Anderson introduces Jill Bolte Taylor by telling us that his mother recently had a stroke. In 30 seconds, he tells us, she was “turned into someone entirely different – a mystery.” Bolte Taylor is in a unique place to decipher this mystery for us. She’s a research psychiatrist at Harvard, with a specialty in brain chemistry. And she’s recovered from a massive stroke, which taught her amazing lessons about how the brain works.
She decided to study the brain because she grew up with a brother who suffered from schizophrenia. Why, she wondered, could she take her dreams and connect them to her reality and make them come true, and why can’t her brother connect his dreams to a common and shared reality? Why instead do they become delusions? At Harvard, she was studying the biological and chemical differences between the brains of people who were normal, schizophrenia, schizoaffective and who had bipolar disorder. On the weekends, she travelled as an advoate for NAMI – National Advocates for Mental Illness.
On December 10, 1996, “I woke up with a brain disorder of my own.” She suffered a massive hemmorhage in her left cerebral cortex. By the end of the day, she couldn’t walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of her life. She’s brought in a human brain to show us. “It’s obvious that the two hemispheres are completely separate from one another…The right hemisphere functions as parallel processor, the left functions as a serial processor.” While they’re connected by the corpus callosum, they operate to a great deal independently from one another.
To the right hemisphere, the world is a wash of sensations. “We are energy beings connected to energy of each other through the consciousness of the right hemispheres. In this moment, we are perfect, we are whole, and we are beautiful.”
The left hemisphere is a different place, all about the past and the future. Its job is to pick out the details from those waves of sensation and to categorize and organize all that information. It thinks in language, “ongoing brain chatter that connects internal and external world.”
Bolte Taylor woke up that morning with acute pain, like eating ice cream. She tried to start her daily ritual, exercising on a cario machine. But she percieved her hands as claws, and felt a weird feeling of externalization. She began slowing down, sensing constriction in her area of perception. As she tried to get into the shower, she could hear the dialog inside her body: “Okay, you muscles contract, you muscles relax.” As the water turned on, she discovered she could no longer define the boundaries of her body. “The atoms and molecules of my arm blended with the atoms of the wall. All I can detect is this energy.” And for a moment, that left hemisphere brain chatter went totally silent/
“I was totally shocked inside a silent mind, captivated by the energy around me.” It was a liberating experience, leaving all the cares of daily life behind. “I felt enormous, expansive, at one with all the energy. It was beautiful there.” And then her left hemisphere came back online, yelling, “We got a problem here!”
As she realized she was having a stroke, one of her first thoughts was, “This is so cool! How many brain scientists have a stroke?” That thought was rapidly followed by, “But I’m a busy woman. I can’t afford to deal with this than longer than a couple of weeks.” She realized how serious things were when she discovered she no longer knew her workplace number. She shuffled through a huge stack of business cards, hoping to find her own card. But the letters were no more than squiggles, and she wasted 45 minutes, during which her brain was bleeding, trying to find the right squiggle to dial. When she finally connected, she couldn’t understand human speech – “My colleague sounded like a golden retriever.” She hadn’t realized she couldn’t understand until she’d attempted to speak. As the ambulance took her to the hospital, she remembers realizing, “I am no longer the choreographer of my actions,” and surrendering, perhaps to life post-stroke, perhaps to death.
After she emerged from coma, “light burned my brain like wildfire.” Noise was painful, and she couldn’t pick sounds from the noise. But she found the expansive feeling again, that moment of connection to the rest of the world, a feeling that felt like nirvana. “If I am alive and could find nirvana, then anyone could find nirvana. People could purposely choose to step to the right of their left hemispheres. What a gift this experience could be!”
It was a gift with a huge cost. Two and a half weeks after the stroke, a surgeon removed a blood clot the size of a golf ball from her brain. It took her eight years to recover completely. She asks, “Who are we? We are the life force power of the universe, with manual dexterity and two cognitive minds… We have the power moment to moment to choose how we want to be in the world,” whether we want to be purely rational or live within our right brains. “The more time we spend on the right brain, the peace circutry of our brains, the more peace we will see in the world.” Tears in her eyes, she concludes, “I thought that was an idea worht spreading.”