User’s Guide to the Brain by a Writer Who Lost Half of Hers

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
—    Walking
—    Meditating

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.

Writing Prompt
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.

Jill Bolte Taylor’s Home Page
Amazon page for “My Stroke of Insight”



Gary Presley’s Memoir Defangs the Horror of Disability

by Jerry Waxler

The children’s illustrator, Maurice Sendak told an interviewer that when he was little, he was scared of old people. He was afraid of their wrinkled skin and hair growing out of the wrong places. Such scary impressions formed the basis for the monsters in Sendak’s children’s books, monsters that made him famous. The interviewer Marty Moss Coane then asked him, “Now that you are 80 years-old yourself, do you feel you have become a monster to the small children who read your books?” “Absolutely” he answered. “Many children at signings are afraid of me and burst into tears when their mother tells them to hand me their book.”

The conversation stirred my own childhood memory of visiting my great-grandmother in a nursing home. She was very, very old, with white hair and shriveled skin. I couldn’t wait to get out. As I grow older, my own body gradually becomes less perfect, an observation made all the more disturbing by my tendency to prefer lovely and smooth people over flawed ones. If I judge my own vitality the way I judge theirs, I come up short, in fact shorter all the time, as even my height collapses under the weight of years.

I feel an urgency to start loving the flaws in the human condition, because if I don’t do it soon, I will start hating myself. To help me change my perspective, I have been reading people’s stories. Their thoughts and feelings teach me who they are, in the full flower of their differences and imperfections.

Take Gary Presley, for example, a moderator on InternetWritingWorkshop. I admire Gary’s relentless kindness and service to fellow writers. And, it turns out, Gary accomplishes these achievements from a wheelchair. His body was ravaged by polio when he was 17, and now decades later, he has written about his journey in the memoir “Seven Wheelchairs, A Life beyond Polio.”

As I learn about Gary, I recognize in his story, a central aspect of my own ambition. I too pour myself into writing, wanting to be known not by my increasingly flawed body but by the long reach of my curious mind. By understanding him, I learn much about myself and continue to expand my fascination with people of all kinds. His world makes mine richer.

But to share his world with me, he had to figure out how to set words on a page. It is through this strange medium that he, and every memoir writer, shares our world. And so, despite his physical difference from me, Gary has traveled a writer’s journey that has created a voice, strong and deep, through which to present himself in all his complex, rich energy of a creative human being, exemplifying universal qualities that make life worth living — the will to learn, to create, and then to express inner life and share it with the world.

While all of us have a story, not all of us have been to graduate school to study the nuances of writing style and theory. Instead we accumulate knowledge in bits and pieces. One workshop leader shows us how to create a unique character by describing a tic or habit. A book about writing explains the importance of starting a story in the middle of the action. An especially important insight for memoir writers is the difference between essays and stories. Gary Presley’s memoir contains excellent lessons about these two forms because it straddles the fence between them.

I think of pure story as something you can put on a stage. It progresses through scenes, and shows you specific images that you can visualize. So for example, consider Gary’s portrayal of his last walk under power of his own legs. He was milking the cows one evening, felt sick, went to bed, and woke up the next morning unable to move his legs. It’s a story.

I think of an essay as a discussion of ideas. For example, Gary explores his relationship with the Seven Wheelchairs in the title, rapidly traversing periods of time, progressing from one wheelchair to the next, and explaining the importance of this vehicle for his independence. He hates it when people say he is “confined to a wheel chair.” He prefers to see the machine as a sort of external appendage of himself, like a bionic man who uses wheels instead of legs. This discussion of his relationship to wheelchairs is an essay.

Reading Prompt
Memoirs are structured as stories. And yet, they almost always contain essays, sometimes a paragraph long, and sometimes a page. To learn about the relationship between these two forms, read Seven Wheelchairs or any favorite memoir carefully. In one color, highlight the scenes that could be performed as a play. In another color, highlight the parts that describe thoughts and ideas. See which parts you like, and think about how the author has handled the mix between these two forms.

Philosophy of self-reliance seen through the eyes of a crip
Presley tells the story of his life in a wheelchair, a “crip” as he calls himself, when he fell from the teenage graces of an adult into the prison of an iron lung. Then he describes years of life, from reliance on caregivers, to his employment in an office, and so on. Through it all, he faces a powerful inner tension. He is unable to get into or out of bed or clean himself without assistance, and yet his pride demands he be self-reliant. How can he be both self-reliant and yet rely on his helpers for his very life?

He expresses his dilemma eloquently, describing his initial anger and despair in the early years, and gradually he discovers a balance in his attitude that would sustain him through the rest of his life. In this state of inner tension, to survive as a proud individual, he exerts indomitable will, founded upon a rock-solid determination to manage his mind, the part of himself he can still control. He must not give in to depression, laziness, or dependence. Within himself, and with others, he demands the right to be a full person.

Gary’s biography proves that ideas are more than mere garnish. His ideas about self-reliance kept him alive, pushed him to excel, and despite the limitations polio foisted on him, he continued a lifelong commitment to giving and interacting with others. His ideas were crucial for shaping and sustaining his life.

His determination to rise above mere circumstance forces me to look beyond the frustration of traffic jams, the fear of economic downturn, and even the health and wholeness of my body. Idealism is more than all of these things. Idealism provides an image of what life could be. Then we idealists passionately reach towards it, and struggling, come as close to it as possible. By showing me how he arrived at these ideas, he transformed his outer disability into a story of inner strength, providing a noble ideal that I hope to be able to follow.

Here are two more memoirs that combine the story and essay form:
Kate Braestrup’s “Here when you need me” contains essay thinking about the theodicy problem.
Henry Louis Gates’ “Colored People” contains a terrific essay about hair.

For brief descriptions and links to other posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.