Illustration by Lara Tomlin
When Jill Bolte Taylor tells you about her stroke, she takes you on an Alice in Wonderland-like journey, watching herself sort of inside out. In her book, My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey, Taylor, a PhD specializing in neuroanatomy, describes in sharp detail the collapse of her motor skills as her brain fragmented, and tells of being “strangely elated” as her grip on reality melted. “In the wisdom of my dementia, I understood that my body was, by the magnificence of its biological design, a precious and fragile gift.”
Five years ago she wrote the memoir about the trauma to her brain and the long road of recovery. “Every brain has a story and this is mine. Ten years ago I was at Harvard Medical School performing research and teaching young professionals about the human brain. But on Dec. 10, 1996, I was given a lesson of my own.” Her story has been optioned as a major feature film.
She says the stroke was a “blessing and revelation” that has brought her a new sense of inner peace. It took her eight years to recover and learn how to talk, walk and read again. These days, she lectures widely, is working on a game for neurological rehabilitation and creating a nonprofit organization dedicated to the health of the brain. She spoke about all of this and why she “chose to survive” with Paul Costello, the School of Medicine’s chief communications officer.
Costello: Most people would think that having a stroke is a bad thing, but in the end you clearly don’t see it that way.
Taylor: Well, my particular stroke was definitely a devastating neurological trauma to the brain, but I happened to be the right person in the right place at the right time to have the kind of stroke that I had and then the ability to recover from that. So I do not see my stroke as a terrible thing.
Costello: During your recovery you relearned basic skills and you changed your outlook on life. Can you talk about that? Is there some sadness about some of the things you left behind?
Taylor: The biggest thing I lost was my emotional baggage from the first 37 years of my life. I have to say that to be set free from the emotional pain of attachment to things in my past has been extremely liberating. It’s really nice waking up in the morning not knowing if you’re mad at anybody.
Costello: That would be great. I think most people would take that experience. But has that complicated your life?
Taylor: Well, I’ve had to start over with my relationships. So, for example, my mother came to me immediately following the stroke as my primary caregiver. I did not know what a mother was much less who my mother was. What that meant was my mother no longer had the power of the mother that she had had for 37 years of my life. So she and I had to re-navigate a new relationship. It was complicated, the fact that we had to begin again, but at the same time it was a gift because it gave us the opportunity to get rid of the garbage.
Costello: Are there some key ingredients to successful recovery? What really matters?
Taylor: Well, for us I’d say the first thing that mattered was sleep. We really had to honor the healing power of sleep. The brain is processing literally billions and billions of bits of data moment by moment and when there’s trauma to the cells, by definition, the cells are not communicating with one another as they normally would. So information comes in confused and somewhat chaotic. Sleep allowed me to close out new, incoming stimulation and to process and file information that had come in to try to make some sense of it.
My mother was very good at pushing me as far as I could go, and then backing off and allowing me to go to sleep. And that’s the biggest difference between what we did and what traditional rehabilitation does.
Costello: It struck me that the energy people brought into the room really impacted you while you were first recovering.
Taylor: Without a left brain capable of communicating with language or breaking information down into dif-ferences and boundaries and edges, my right brain looked at everything as on a continuum — a continuum of flowing particles, of energy. So when people came into my presence I couldn’t understand a word they said, but I could certainly experience their affect and the intonation of their voice and their body language. Is it turned toward me or away from me? Are people happy to be there or were they preoccupied? Those were the kinds of subtle messages that I was receiving.
Costello: Your mother was an important watchdog in that matter, which seems to indicate to me that everyone needs a cop standing near them, standing in the room, standing at their bedside as this recovery occurs.
Taylor: Well, I certainly did. I needed someone to watch out for me and prioritize the use of my energy because life, just living life in a normal day, takes so much energy, and in my level of trauma I had hardly any energy whatsoever, so the question was, what am I going to use that for? Am I going to put my mind into trying to make some sense of the world or am I going to have that energy pulled away from me by a well-intentioned visitor?
Costello: What do you do these days to take care of your brain?
Taylor:I’m very good at giving my brain downtime. I love to walk through nature, I love to do art, I love to sing and play my guitar. I allow myself the time that really allows me to shift away from my predominantly left-brain detail base into the bigger picture.
Costello: What about the brain still baffles you?
Taylor: Well, I have to say, the power of hate really, really, really confuses me. That’s something that I struggle with. How do we help people realize that hate, whatever it is that you are projecting at the object of hate, is really a painful, personally destructive thing to yourself and not necessarily to the object that you’re projecting the hate to.
Costello: You write now that your life is, as you said, a perfect life. It’s extraordinary for anyone to say that they have a perfect life. Tell me why your life is so good.
Taylor: Well, I think life is so good because I celebrate that I have the capacity to have the life that I have. I wake up in the morning with gratitude in my heart. I thank my cells that allow me to wake up in the morning. It’s a specific group of cells in my brain stem. Throughout my day I’m appreciative of the people I interact with, I’m appreciative of my dogs, I’m appreciative of my environment. I really live a life filled with gratitude, and I find that when I run the gratitude circuit like that, I just say thank you. Thank you for another great day.
This interview was condensed and edited by Rosanne Spector.