by Jerry Waxler
Jill Bolte Taylor, author of the memoir, “My Stroke of Insight” studied brains for a living, a profession she entered to help people like her brother, who suffers from schizophrenia. Taylor, at the age of 37 already respected for her work at Harvard, found another, much more personal involvement with neurology. An artery burst and as blood flooded into her brain, she observed the changes in her thinking and her body. It was like a laboratory experiment taking place within her own skull.
When she awoke the morning of the stroke, she felt strange, increasingly helpless, and at the same time, she felt a surge of oneness with the universe, similar to what you might expect from a religious experience. In fact, she uses the Buddhist term, nirvana, to describe her state of mind.
This short book starts with an overview of anatomy to help readers understand what was taking place. Then, she describes the details of the actual event. Soon afterward she was reduced to the helplessness of a small child, nurtured back to health by her mother. Their loving relationship permeated the book. The real power of “My Stroke of Insight” comes from the lessons that Bolte Taylor learned about her brain.
Years ago, neurological research noted the different functions served by each half of the brain. Broadly speaking, the left half is oriented towards picking things apart. This side is the domain of mathematicians, scientists, and other people who rely on analysis. Scientists credit this side of the brain with civilization’s advance out of the dark ages and into modernity.
Like so many splits these days, fervent advocates on each side see the other side as the enemy. Artists and creative types have adopted the right half of the brain as their own, claiming it tends towards holistic thinking, inspiration, and harmony. And they say that the west’s love affair with the left-brain has created a society that too quickly picks things apart, making way for social ills like prejudice and the western tendency to dominate nature and each other.
The right half of the brain sounds lovely. Who wouldn’t want world peace and inner harmony? Well, it turns out that die hard left-brainers downplay the glory of the right-brain, fearing that such “holistic ideas” are wishy-washy and vague, and lack the discipline required for a proper technical understanding of the world. Until the stroke, Jill Bolte Taylor prided herself on her rigorous thinking, feeling confident in the sharp distinctions, judgments and analyses of her left-brain.
The stroke brought both extremes of this split world into dramatic focus. Instantly deprived of her ability to use her left brain, she felt a blissful state of unity and peace. At the same time, she had lost so much of her analytical firepower she couldn’t figure out how to use the phone. While her life drained away, she had to force herself to remember what a phone number looks like and how to call for help.
She survived, and it took her eight years to fully recover. During the arduous rehabilitation of her left brain, she noticed that whenever her analytical thinking returned, it was accompanied by judgments, anger, and petty annoyance, suggesting a connection between her left-brain and the darker side of her nature. Analysis apparently makes it too easy to put people into compartments, fostering a more arrogant, prejudiced, and aggressive state of mind. She hated these negative feelings and realized that while she adored intellectual pursuits, she now had to take into account their emotional cost.
To hang on to the peace that had been thrust on her by her stroke, she accumulated a repertoire of techniques that helped her balance the two sides of her brain. When she found herself slipping too far into judgment, she used these techniques to bridge back to a sense of peace. Some of the techniques she employed were:
— Yoga Breathing Exercises
— Self-soothing statements
Her new mission, to see how brain balance creates world peace
While all of these methods are available in more detail through other self-help sources, Bolte Taylor’s contribution is to show us how they relate to brain function, and why it’s healthy to learn how to use the whole brain. She contends that the difference between an edgy, combative, and angry state of mind and a mind filled with love and peace is directly related to which side of the brain is in control.
She says, “I continue to work very hard to maintain a healthy relationship between what is going on in my right and left minds. I love knowing that I am simultaneously (depending on which hemisphere you ask) as big as the universe, and yet merely a heap of star dust.”
By reaching out to share her findings through her memoir and her public talks, she is continuing a lifelong trend. As a young woman, she wanted to help her brother’s schizophrenia. So she turned her scientific mind towards the study of brains. She used her left-brain analysis to help her brother. Then as a popularizer of brain research, she reached out to help more and more people. This desire to stretch beyond yourself and help the world is a strong function of the right-brain. In effect, the way she was making use of both sides of her brain was a preview of what she was about to learn.
The stroke sent her on a journey far away from her comfort zone, beyond the world she knew, to gather wisdom at the gates of death. She returned, armed with lessons she learned from her journey, and once again, she wants to use her observations to help others reach their full potential.
The brain is a powerful organ. It can make war or peace, and can lift people to the moon or dash them down into horror. The more I know about this organ between my ears, the more empowered I am to live my life with satisfaction, and effectiveness. So I appreciate Jill Bolte Taylor’s book, which inspires me to think more clearly about her situation and mine, and all the wonderful things we humans can learn from each other to help us live together. I call her book a User’s Guide to the Brain, and I am grateful for the information she has shared with me and wish her well on her quest to use her personal experience to uplift the world.
What lessons have you learned through your own experience? Did you learn about weight-loss, surviving divorce, how to stay spiritually balanced in an office environment, how to raise a child with a disability? Did you learn about immigration, or war, or disease, life in a wheelchair, or life in government service? The list of potential lessons is as diverse as human experience itself. Brainstorm about how to turn your knowledge into a message that can help other people. Have fun. Allow yourself to imagine. Some of your ideas, which may seem impossible today, could become tools to connect with and help other people tomorrow.
I recently read a related memoir, Irene Pepperberg’s book “Alex and Me” – Pepperberg is another scientist, who, through a very different route, also arrives at the conclusion that wholeness leads the way towards greater wisdom.