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Jill Bolte Taylor


A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The author is a neuroanatomist who suffered a disabling stroke at the age of 37 when a blood vessel in her brain burst. Over the next 8 years she recovered progressively until she regained full use of her mental and physical functions. She also, she believes, obtained a most valuable degree of spiritual insight as a result of the experience. In this book she describes the process of recovery and the new way of thinking that she has arrived at now.

The book is aimed at an audience with no knowledge of how the brain works, and the author does a good job of explaining the basics so as to make the story comprehensible. She then describes the stroke itself, which was obviously a terrifying experience, as over the next few hours she progressively lost her power of speech and then the ability to process visual and auditory inputs. At first—ironically in view of her academic background—she did not realize what was happening to her, and by the time she did it was almost too late, but fortunately she just managed to make herself understood over the telephone. By the time she reached hospital she was almost completely cut off from the outer world.

Jill's stroke was left-sided, which meant that her ability to speak and to understand speech was virtually lost. She was now living largely in her right hemisphere, and much of the book is taken up with describing how this kind of experience differs from that of left-hemisphere dominance. She is convinced that right-hemispheric experience, characterised by an atemporal, non-verbal, and intuitive way of processing information, is extremely valuable but is generally neglected in our society. She implies that this was what writers on mysticism call an experience of union with everything. If so, it is interesting that it seems to have occurred as the result of a loss of normal function. Other people who have suffered brain damage have described something similar.

Soon after Jill was admitted to hospital her mother arrived, and her support was evidently crucial to her daughter's eventual recovery. An operation was performed to prevent a recurrence of the bleed and to remove the blood clot from her brain. This was a success and luckily most of her brain cells, apart from those responsible for her mathematical ability, were intact and gradually recovered their function. Even so, it was a slow process and Jill makes the important point that recovery from stroke can go on for much longer than is generally believed to be the case.

The main insight that Jill has acquired as the result of her stroke and recovery is that it is unnecessary for her—and, by extension, the rest of us—to be caught up in "negative" emotions such as anger. We cannot avoid feeling such states but, left to themselves, they die away in 90 seconds. Left-hemispheric function can lead us to dwell on them and prolong them, but we can choose not to. We can see them as passing moods that we don't need to pursue. "The more aware I remain about what my brain is saying and how these thoughts feel inside my body, the more I own my power in choosing what I want to spend my time thinking about and how I want to feel." This idea is very similar to what Buddhism teaches as Insight Meditation, though Jill does not mention this.

Jill seems to have had two motives in writing this account: to record and come to terms with her experience for herself, and to help other stroke victims and those who care for them. (An appendix provides information about things which she found helpful to her in assisting her recovery.) Some of this may be more attuned to an American audience than a European one. Thus, there is much talk of "energy" and Jill finds solace in drawing "Angel Cards" several times a day.

This is a fascinating account of a shattering experience and the recovery from it, made all the richer by the fact that its author was and is a neuroscientist, therefore excellently placed to assess the meaning of her experience. But in some ways I found it surprisingly incomplete. To find oneself isolated, as it were, within one's right hemisphere has all kinds of profound philosophical implications, and so does the return to "normal" consciousness, but Jill does not discuss these.

She speaks about her left and right hemispheres as if they were two different organs through which she experiences the world. But who is doing the experiencing? This is not explained. There is an implicit duality here which is never confronted explicitly. She writes of her "I" as if it were in some sense separate from her brain, but is this what she believes? It seems unlikely that a neuroanatomist today would think in this way, but I should have thought that her experience would have made her reflect on the question. Yet, if it has, she does not tell us what conclusions, if any, she has reached.

13 May 2008

%T My Stroke of Insight
%S A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey
%A Taylor, Jill Bolte
%I privately printed
%C Bloomington, Indiana
%D 2006
%G ISBN 978-1-4303-0061-8
%P 181pp
%K autobiography, psychology
%O paperback

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