DATE June 25, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Jill Bolte Taylor discusses her new book "My Stroke of
Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey," what she
experienced during her stroke and her recovery
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
As a stroke survivor and brain scientist, Jill Bolte Taylor has a special
ability to describe the experience of a stroke. Hers was caused by a severe
hemorrhage in the left hemisphere of her brain. The stroke left her unable to
speak, write, read or recall any aspects of her life. That was in 1996, when
she was 37. She recovered slowly over a period of eight years. On the
morning of her stroke she had what she describes as a mystical or metaphysical
experience that she believes was caused by the location of the bleed in her
The brain science behind that mystical experience is one of the things she
explored in a lecture that became an Internet phenomenon. Now she has a new
book called "My Stroke of Insight." At the time of her stroke she was a brain
scientist at Harvard University. She's now a neuroanatomist affiliated with
the Indiana University School of Medicine, and is the national spokesperson
for the mentally ill at the Harvard brain bank. Her brother is schizophrenic.
Jill Bolte Taylor, welcome to FRESH AIR. You explain so vividly what you
experienced during the stroke. Is it rare that a stroke survivor can do that?
Ms. JILL BOLTE TAYLOR: You know, I think that I had an advantage because the
brain was my area of expertise. And as a result of that I've spent a lot of
time thinking about my brain, thinking about how it processes information,
analyzing all of my academic training in trying to apply that to the
experience inside of my own mind. So yes, I do believe that it is unusual for
someone to be so consciously tuned in to every step along the way during the
process of cognitive degeneration.
GROSS: Did you have to do anything to reconnect to those memories, or did
they remain intact?
Ms. TAYLOR: Well, the morning of the stroke, once I lost my left hemisphere,
which thinks in language, once I lost the storyteller and the linearity of my
thought I still retained this ability to think in pictures and essentially run
the video of my existence, and the right hemisphere shifts into a
consciousness of the present moment. So I had these experiences of the
present moment, these memories of--that were vast and open and very
complicated. And I did have to work with a gestalt therapist in order to help
me go back and replay the video and add normal linearity to that story in
order to be able to place language on it, to be able to communicate it again.
GROSS: And I think what you're talking about there, about losing language and
thinking in pictures will become clearer a little later in the conversation,
but I want to start with what happened. Would you describe for us the first
symptoms that you had after awakening one morning in 1996?
Ms. TAYLOR: When I first awoke and sat up, I had a pulsating pain behind my
left eye. And it was very unusual for me to experience any kind of pain. I
rarely had headaches. And I'd never experienced a hemorrhage or stroke before
so, of course, I didn't automatically think, `Oh my gosh, I'm having a
stroke.' So I got up and I was extremely sensitive to light, so I closed the
drapes in order to cut out the light. And I started my normal routine, which
was to jump onto my full body, full exercise cardio glider machine. And as
I'm exercising on this machine I looked at my hands and I realized that my
hands looked like primitive claws grasping onto the bar, and it was a very
peculiar sensation. And I looked at my body and I thought that, you know, I
was really a peculiar looking thing. And I realized that my cognitive mind
had shifted away from my normal perception of reality where I'm the person on
the machine having the experience to essentially an esoteric space observing
myself, witnessing myself having this experience. So those were the earliest
GROSS: You say in your book that you held your hands up in front of your face
and wiggled your fingers and thought that you were perplexed and intrigued,
and you thought, `Wow, what a strange and amazing thing I am, what a bizarre
living being I am.' And you couldn't tell where you ended and the wall began
and you literally felt at one with the things around you. And as I read that
I thought it almost sounds like an LSD trip.
Ms. TAYLOR: I hear a lot of that. Not having had that experience, I can't
speak to them. But a lot of people say that. And, you know, when you stop
and you ask yourself, what would LSD do to the brain, it is essentially
shutting down some circuitries and activating other circuitry inside of the
brain. And for some reason when my left hemisphere went offline because of
the hemorrhage, then this experience of euphoria and at one with all that is,
where everything is connected as atoms and molecules, would essentially be the
same circuitry as a drug trip. The only difference being, of course, a drug
trip is maybe a 12-hour experience that happens to the brain, and mine ended
up being an eight-year process.
GROSS: And yours was caused by incredible damage to the brain that nearly
Ms. TAYLOR: Right.
GROSS: So you describe floating from isolated moment to isolated moment
because it's the left brain, the part of your brain that wasn't functioning,
that makes connections between moments. Can you describe what it felt like to
go from isolated moment to isolated moment where A no longer had any
relationship with B?
Ms. TAYLOR: It was actually a very beautiful experience, because when you're
totally focused in the present moment and you're having the experience of the
sensation of being at one with all that is, there's boundaries. I mean, you
can look out into the field of whatever you're looking at right now and you
can clearly distinguish edges and where a window is and where a window frame
is, or something else inside of your visual field. And I didn't have that
ability to distinguish the details like that. Instead, everything was just
kind of radiating an energy. And it was captivating. It was--I was caught up
in the phenomenon that I was alive. I was this incredible life force energy
made up of this incredible conglomeration of all these cells of my body,
everything, including me, radiating energy and interconnected.
But as soon as I would turn my back on this moment and on this scene, then
that didn't exist for me anymore. It kind of drifted away. And then I had
this new, very exciting present moment. And so I wasn't distracted with the
past. I wasn't distracted with the future. I was just having this clarity of
the present moment, which is great, unless you want to learn something. And
as soon as we want to learn something, we bring information from the past into
the present and then adapt it for the future. So it left me in a state of
really cognitive inability.
GROSS: One of the many things I find amazing about your description is that,
on the one hand you're feeling this sense of euphoria and oneness, being
totally in the moment, an overwhelming sense of peace. At the same time,
you're still experiencing that incredible pain. You've got that pain in back
of your eye, that pain in your brain, and there's still a part of your brain
that knows that something is terribly wrong. Can you talk about holding those
two competing thoughts in your brain at the same time? Were they fighting
each other? Was that sense of, `I'm in pain, something's really wrong,'
battling with `this is beautiful, I'm euphoric, you know, let's just keep
continuing in the moment'?
Ms. TAYLOR: I didn't really have the feeling that they were battling because
I didn't have that kind of control. I was in one or I was in the other. I
did feel as though my left hemisphere was hanging on with every ounce of
energy it had to try to retain enough of my consciousness and get me back into
this wave of clarity where I could reconnect with the external world, where I
could get one step closer to orchestrating my rescue. But in the absence of
that, when I would shift out into the right hemisphere of consciousness, it
was such an experience of bliss and euphoria that I had zero desire to try to
go back to the other and try to rescue myself because it was just so enticing.
And it was the only morning that was like that. It was after that morning
passed, then I--the left hemisphere had saved my life, but I had no language
whatsoever by the time I woke up later that afternoon.
GROSS: One of the things the description you're giving us is reminding me of
is some people's description of near death experiences, where they feel this
sense of like warmth and euphoria and oneness, and they almost don't want to
come back to earth.
Ms. TAYLOR: Yeah, I think that it was a near death experience in the way
that if you can just conceive of the idea that your left hemisphere is no
longer communicating with you with language. And, you know, did you ever
wonder when you wake up in the morning and you're brushing your teeth and
you're looking at yourself, did you every wonder how it is you remember what
your name is? You know your name because your brain is telling you, `Oh, my
name is Terry. This is what I do. This is who I am. This is where I live.
This is my agenda for the day.' But if you didn't have that you would still
exist, but you wouldn't be functioning as Terry Gross anymore. You wouldn't
be functioning as the individual you define yourself to be. So in the absence
of our relationship to who we are in the external world, there's this
incredible release of responsibility and stress and the physiological response
that goes with any of that. And, you know, when you allow yourself to shift
into the present moment it's very freeing, it's very peaceful. It feels very
light, the connection to all that is. For me it was an extreme experience of
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jill Bolte Taylor. She's a
neuroscientist who had a stroke in 1996. And her new memoir "My Stroke of
Insight" is about what she experienced during the stroke and the recovery.
Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH
GROSS: My guest is Jill Bolte Taylor. She's a brain scientist who had a
stroke in 1996. And in her new memoir "My Stroke of Insight" she describes
and also analyzes what happened when she had the stroke, and what happened
through her recovery. You may have seen a kind of now famous lecture that she
gave that has been circulating on the Internet with a lot of e-mail links to
Let's talk a little bit more about the neuroscience of what happened to you
and then we'll get back to your experience of it. The brain is divided into
two hemispheres. Where was your bleed? Your stroke was a bleed in the brain.
What part of your brain was most affected?
Ms. TAYLOR: My hemorrhage happened in the left hemisphere of my brain, right
near the center and deep into the temporal region. So the thing about blood
in the brain is that the brain cells, neurons, find blood to be toxic to them.
So there are all these barriers, the blood brain barriers, different ways that
the brain creates boundaries so that the blood does not come in direct contact
with neurons. And when you have a hemorrhage, of course, you've got blood
everywhere that it does not belong and it's coming in direct contact with
neurons. And it's either killing them or shocking them so that they can no
longer function. So my left hemisphere started with a very small bleed and
then over time, over the course of four hours, the bleed got larger and larger
and larger. As the blood clot got bigger and bigger, more functional
abilities of my brain were rendered totally helpless and nonfunctional.
GROSS: And describe some of the differences between the left and the right
Ms. TAYLOR: Well, the left hemisphere is all about our ability to
communicate with the external world. So my ability to create sound through my
vocal chords is part of my left hemisphere. I say the word dog, dog. Dog is
a sound that my throat creates, but your brain then can, in your left
hemisphere, place a meaning on the word dog, and you have two things happen
probably. Your right hemisphere thinks about the dog, a picture of a dog
flashes into your mind--that's going to happen in the right hemisphere--or
your left hemisphere is going to think of a specific dog that you know or a
specific breed of dog. So both hemispheres are functioning all the time, but
the left hemisphere thinks in language and it's really about our relationship
with the past, our relationship with the future, our ability to think
linearly, my ability to know that I have to put my socks on before I put my
shoes on. That's linear thinking. It's the ability to create a method and to
follow that method from, first you do A then B then C then D. So it's my
logical, critically analyzing portion of my brain. It searches for
differences instead of similarities.
The right hemisphere is the big picture of the present moment. So when I look
out into the world I see everything around me. I'm not focusing on the
details. I think in pictures and images. It's going to be, as far as
language is concerned, it's going to be my ability to understand inflection or
intonation of voice. So it's the more subtle body language, facial language
ability to understand.
So the two hemispheres process information very differently. And as a result
of that, they think about things differently. They care about different
things. And I believe they have very different personalities.
GROSS: During the morning of your stroke when your ability to speak was wiped
out, your sense of who you were was wiped out, one of your arms was paralyzed,
you still managed to call for help, but it was a long, arduous process. Could
you just briefly give us a sense of what you had to do, having lost so much of
your cognitive abilities and physical abilities, what you had to do to call
Ms. TAYLOR: Well, just to figure out that I was having a situation that was
serious enough to call for help took a very long time because I, of course, as
I mentioned, never had a stroke before so I didn't know, you know, I should
pick up the phone and call 911 immediately while 911 is still inside of my
mind. But for me I kept shifting out into this experience of euphoria,
totally detached from any ability to think about or relate to the external
world. And it wasn't until my right arm went totally paralyzed by my side
that I realized, `Oh my gosh, I'm having a stroke,' because that was a warning
sign, paralysis in your body, a warning sign of stroke. And so at that point
I was really aware that I needed to get help, but I couldn't retain the idea
long enough in order to act on it.
And, you know, at this point people say, `Well, why didn't she just call 911?'
Well, the group of cells in my left hemisphere that understood numbers, the
group of cells that understood what 911 was were swimming in a pool of blood
and no longer functional. I had a landlady downstairs home on maternity
leave. I could have gone right down and asked her, but she didn't exist for
me anymore because she was a part of a memory system that was no longer
So eventually I did decide that I was going to call work and I had to locate a
business card that had my phone number at work on it. And by the time I
finally found my business card--and it was very difficult because visually
when I looked at the business card, all I could see were pixels and I could
not distinguish what was a word from the background, from the symbols. So I
could not read. And eventually I had to match the shape of the squiggle of
the number to the match of the squiggle on the telephone pad in order to get
that phone number dialed. And during that process I am drifting in and out of
lala land, so I had to wield my paralyzed arm like a stump and use my finger
to cover the number, the squiggle, that I had already dialed because otherwise
I would not know that I had already dialed that. So I was just very blessed
to persevere through that process and to have somebody sitting at a desk by
the time the phone call was made.
GROSS: You're obviously a very verbal person. What was it like for you to be
unable to speak or comprehend language?
Ms. TAYLOR: Well, in the beginning it was really shocking because when I
would have a wave of clarity I could hear myself saying clearly in my mind,
`This is Jill, I need help. This is Jill, I'm having a stroke.' But when I
tried to get my throat to make that sound just `rur rur rur rur' came out.
And that was--I did not know that I could not speak until I tried to speak.
And that was absolutely shocking to me. Because you have to remember, through
the eyes of a neuroscientist, through the eyes of a neuroanatomist, my area of
specialty is knowing which cells are communicating with which cells, and what
do those circuits look like. So I'm analyzing the deterioration and
degeneration of my mind as I'm having this experience. And it was profound.
It was a profound experience through the eyes of a scientist. At the same
time, I knew that I had to get help or I was in a gravely disabled situation.
GROSS: You mentioned that the morning of your stroke you kept drifting in and
out of the state of euphoria, but that euphoria wasn't there after you got to
the hospital and kind of awakened later in the day or the next day. Can you
talk about what it was like after the euphoria was behind you, when you were
in a body controlled by a brain that was severely damaged by the stroke?
Ms. TAYLOR: You know, those were really devastating moments for me because I
recognized that the brain, my brain, my left hemisphere had an organic
problem, and it was no longer capable of normal function. And just prior to
arriving at the emergency room, where the doctors would stabilize my life and
give me a new chance at life, right before that I had curled up into a little
fetal ball and I felt all of the energy of me just shift and lift. And to me
I felt--the best way for me to describe it with language is, I surrendered. I
surrendered to my death. And so I essentially, at that point, all that
morning I had been `hold on, hold on, hold on, just hold on.' Who knows what
I'm holding on to, but I'm holding on. And at that point I was no longer
holding on. I had let go. And so I felt that I had died. But I didn't have
any of the near death, light experience.
But I woke then later that afternoon and I was shocked, absolutely shocked
that I was still alive and that I was still in this body, if you will, and yet
the brain was no longer capable of functioning. So I was not necessarily
happy to find myself in that condition. And it was--I really had to grieve
the death of the woman whom I had been because I had none of her memories. I
had none of her recollection of her life. And I was essentially now an
GROSS: Jill Bolte Taylor will be back in the second half of the show. Her
new memoir is called "My Stroke of Insight." I'm Terry Gross, and this is
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Jill Bolte Taylor, a
brain scientist who had a severe stroke in late 1996 that left her unable to
speak, write or recall her own life. She recovered slowly over eight years.
In her new memoir "My Stroke of Insight," she writes about what she
experienced as a stroke victim, and uses her knowledge as a neuroanatomist to
analyze the losses and the new perceptions caused by the bleed in the left
hemisphere of her brain.
When we left off, she was describing her shock on waking up in the hospital to
find she was still alive. But she felt her sense of self had died with the
loss of her memory.
You didn't have memories that really defined who you were. You couldn't
speak. You were having trouble understanding language. But did you still
have some kind of residual sense of meaning? Were there things that, even
though you couldn't understand and couldn't express, you still knew?
Ms. TAYLOR: You know, it's interesting, because I knew I knew all this
stuff, but I just couldn't access any of it. And so I kind of see it as, my
brain was filled with files. And before, to get any information out I'd just
go on a search and retrieve and I'd go into the drawer and I'd find the right
file and I'd get the data, and I had all this information. And at that point
it was as though all the filing cabinets were slammed closed and pushed beyond
my reach. So it was like I knew I should know all this stuff, but I didn't
know. I didn't have access to any of that information. And there's no
guarantee, of course, that you're ever going to find that again.
GROSS: Well, did you find it again? I mean, did you learn about who you were
from scratch, from other people telling you, or did those file drawers
eventually open up?
Ms. TAYLOR: For the first several years, I had to be taught everything. And
it wasn't probably until at least year six or seven or eight or even now that
I am aware that I know things about my past that nobody every taught me. But,
you know, there's a lot of information that I don't have. But, you know, if
you had asked me before the stroke what my tenth year birthday cake looked
like, I wouldn't have been able to tell you. And if you ask me now I can't
tell you. So, you know, a lot of the data--I had been a very intuitive person
anyway. So I think intuitively, which is not detail based, it's more
association and building of the big picture basis. So I do know that I have
learned things, but my science, for example, I had to learn my science from
I had the advantage that I didn't lose my right hemisphere. So I still
understood, after enough time for the swelling in brain to go down and after
brain surgery, I had enough awareness that I still understood, for example,
the head of the pancreas and how the duodenum fits around the head of the
pancreas. I had the picture in my mind, but I didn't have any language. So I
had to go back and re-learn all the terminology of all of my science. But I,
again, had the advantage that I already had the three-dimensional picture and
understanding from still having a functional right hemisphere.
GROSS: You write in your book, "Without the language center telling me I am
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, I am a neuroanatomist, I felt no obligation to being
her anymore." So when you'd forgotten so much of who you were, when you'd lost
so many of your memories, what are some of the things about your basic
identity that you think changed as you slowly recovered?
Ms. TAYLOR: You know, it was very freeing to no longer be attached to whom
she had been, whom I had been prior to the hemorrhage because she was a very
smart woman, and she had quite a high-pressure job. And, you know, in the
absence of being attached to who she had been and what she was doing, there
was a sense of freedom. And since I didn't have any of her memories or any of
her knowledge or any of her attachment to relationships, at the same time I
wasn't attached to her emotional baggage. And, you know, I had been--I grew
up in a family in the Midwest with a brother who has been diagnosed with
schizophrenia, and I grew up to study the brain because of my relationship
with my brother and trying to understand what is different about his brain
that he experiences hallucination and delusion and I don't. I can attach my
dreams to my reality, and I can make my dreams come true.
So all of the things that had motivated her before, I didn't share any of
that. So I kind of got to start over again. And I had no, really, cognitive
capacity in the beginning to have any real intellect, so I didn't feel the
pressure to become who she had been. And it was very freeing for me.
GROSS: Can you give us an example of what you consider to be one of the most
and least effective form of therapies that you experienced during the recovery
period from your stroke?
Ms. TAYLOR: I did not experience, actually, much normal, traditional
rehabilitation. I did have speech therapy, where I would go in just about
every 10 days. But it was my mother, my mother came back into my world and
she took over everything. She recognized I was an infant again, and we began
with rocking. And we began re-establishing a new mother/daughter
relationship. And my mother was convinced that nothing knew better, no one
knew better than my brain what it needed in order for it to recover. And so
if I was tired, she allowed me to sleep. And this is very nonconventional for
general rehabilitation for individuals with stroke. But my mother, if I
wanted to sleep for 12 hours, she would let me sleep for 12 hours. And then
if I was awake for 20 minutes, she would feed me and take me to the restroom.
And if I had any energy left over she would give me something to do. She was
a teacher. She had spent her whole life as a mathematics professor at a
college. So it was very important to her to pay attention to my needs.
And eventually I moved to a six hour sleep cycle, and then I had some energy
to work. So for us the best therapy was sleep. And unfortunately in our
society it is traditional to take someone, a stroke survivor and wake them up
at 6:30 in the morning, give them amphetamines to make the brain more alert,
prop them up in wheelchairs, take them out into a social environment, subject
them to input stimulation in the form of loud TVs and radios, and say, you
know, `If you're every going to recover you have to act like you're going to
recover.' And that was exactly not what my brain needed.
And then another thing my mother did was, she stood as guard at the door for
visitation. You know, we're in a society where, someone is ill, we want to go
and visit them. Well, you have to be very careful. I learned that there were
two types of people in the world when I was that ill. There were people who
brought me energy, and there were people who took energy away from me. And so
mom noticed that when I had visitors I would use all my energy up and have
nothing left over for working. And that wasn't OK with her. So she
eventually stood as guard at the door and if someone came in, they came in for
maybe five minutes. They brought me love, there was no drama trauma. There
was no `oh, woe is Jill.' It was, `You're Jill, you're going to be fine.' She
really insisted that people bring me positive energy.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jill Bolte Taylor. She's a
neuroscientist who had a stroke in 1996. She's written a memoir called "My
Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey." Let's take a short
break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Jill Bolte Taylor. She's a brain scientist who had a
stroke in 1996. And in her new memoir "My Stroke of Insight," she describes
and also analyzes what happened when she had the stroke and what happened
through her recovery.
How did you learn to speak again?
Ms. TAYLOR: Well, I learned how to speak fluently again really by watching a
videotape of a presentation that I had given just a few months prior to the
hemorrhage. I had given a presentation at a national NAMI conference. I had
had it professionally videotaped. And I watched that video over and over and
over again. And by watching the woman I had been, I learned to speak the
language. I learned her inflection of her voice. I learned how to hold a
microphone. I learned how to speak to an audience. So I really learned a lot
about how to be me.
GROSS: During your eight years of recovery, were you ever able to go back to
that euphoric place that you experienced during the stroke?
Ms. TAYLOR: Actually, I've never left that space of euphoria because it's
always there. My right hemisphere is always turned on. And when I lost the
left hemisphere and I had the purity of that right hemisphere euphoric
experience, then that was my total existence. And I was very blessed to live
inside of an absolutely silent mind for two and a half weeks up until my brain
surgery, and then for about two and a half weeks following the brain surgery.
So for five weeks I sat in total silence and I just experienced my life, and I
would sit on my couch with this very goofy grin, and my mother would look at
me and she would think, `What? What? Why are you so happy? You know, how
can you be in this condition but be happy?' And it was--I didn't experience
any of the left hemisphere connection to the external world that would bring
me my stress experience.
And then, as my left hemisphere started to--the swelling went down and I
became capable then of learning language again, then it was a matter of
picking and choosing. You know, I made a deal with myself that I would
recover and I would become as normal as I could be, which meant giving life to
that left hemisphere again, as long as I did not have to sacrifice the
experience of what I had gained, and that was this experience of bliss and
peace and euphoria. So I have the ability to, in the moment of a thought,
turn off my language, stop any focus on how important I am in the world and
come back to the present moment experience of joy.
GROSS: So you can just do that anytime? Like, you don't have to sit and
meditate in order to get there?
Ms. TAYLOR: No, I feel very blessed. That was the gift I was given by
having this experience, is I know what it feels like to turn off the left
hemisphere and be in the right hemisphere. And all I have to do is go back to
that feeling. For example, you know what it feels like to stand at the beach
and to stand at the ocean and to feel, hear the ocean as the waves are coming
at you and the birds, and you can transport yourself there just by thinking
about that. I have the same ability to transport myself out of the left
hemisphere analysis and into the right hemisphere experience of the present
moment just by hooking into the feelings.
GROSS: You know, what you're describing sounds like this state that a lot of
people try to achieve through meditation, through some form of mystical
pursuit. Some people would see it as a religious experience. I know your
father was an Episcopal minister, am I right?
Ms. TAYLOR: Right.
GROSS: So you grew up with a knowledge of religion. Do you see any religious
aspects or any religious connection to what...
Ms. TAYLOR: Right.
GROSS: ...you've experienced, that euphoria?
Ms. TAYLOR: Right. I do think that my experience of that right hemisphere
bliss is what other populations would describe as a spiritual experience. And
I think we're wired to have spirituality. I think that that's why so many of
us have an experience of spirituality. To me, religion is the story that
different people tell themselves because, you know, ultimately, whether you're
Christian based or you're Buddhist based or whatever your choice of religion
is, there's a story that you tell yourself that allows you to quiet your mind,
whether it's through mantra or whether it's through prayer, to quiet that left
hemisphere language center in order for you to be able to feel that you are in
relationship with something that is greater than you are as a single
individual. So I do think all religions are the left hemisphere story that
helps us get into the right hemisphere experience.
GROSS: There are some scientists who are studying through imaging what
happens in the brain during the process of meditation.
Ms. TAYLOR: Right.
GROSS: Are you interested in those studies, and do they bear out what you
Ms. TAYLOR: Oh, I think they're great. Dr. Andrew Newberg has done some
phenomenal work where he's taken individuals who are in a state of meditation
or in a state of prayer and looked at which areas of the brain are either
activated or deactivated when you reach that peak performance of either
experiencing that `I am at one with God' or `I am at one with all that is,'
however you define that. And those results showed the exact same thing. The
area where my hemorrhage happened was right at the language centers, and his
research shows that, as those cells become quiet, then the right hemisphere
cells become more active for having this experience. So, you know, I just
happen to be the experiment that happened from a biological trauma to the
brain as opposed to just being placed inside of modern technology and doing
the exact same thing.
GROSS: You know, for a lot of people it's a real struggle to quiet, you know,
what's often called the chatter in your mind, all those thoughts that are
distracting you from anything that you're doing or from any peace that you can
have because there's always something to worry about or think about or plan.
So you find it easy to quiet all of that now? You can just turn it down, turn
down the volume?
Ms. TAYLOR: It is. It's very easy for me because I don't like the way that
it feels inside my body. And I think that one of the things I gained when I
lost my cognitive thinking mind was I gained a real perception of how
everything feels inside of my body because that's what I was left with. And
when that worrying voice wanted to come back online, I didn't like the way
that it felt inside of my body.
When you stop and you think about what your body feels like when you're angry
or when you're worrying or when you're planning something and you're
stretching for whatever it is that you can get, but there's a lack of
satisfaction going on there, it has a feeling inside of your body, and the
chest gets really tight and shoulders go up and the furrow in the brow goes
down and you clench your jaw, and there's just this feeling that goes with all
of that. And I don't like the way that that feels in my body. And as soon as
I clamp my jaw, my brain says to me `left hemisphere, girl, you're in your
left hemisphere. Do you want to be there?' And there are times that it's very
appropriate for me to be in my left hemisphere and to be having that overall
experience. But I don't want to stay and hang out there anymore because it
physically does not feel healthy to my body.
GROSS: Your brother is schizophrenic, and for years before your stroke you
were active in the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. And you say you
always wanted to understand how, you know, you could dream and understand that
it wasn't reality. Your brother has always confused his delusions with
reality. Do you think through your experience of your stroke you've come any
closer to understanding the experience of mental illness and to understanding
Ms. TAYLOR: I do think that I have a better understanding about how
someone's perception of reality can be so different from mine. And, you know,
before, it's like well, `You walk like me and you talk like me, you got to
think like me.' But I've really discovered that that is not true.
The other insight that I've been given is how our society treats someone who
is not totally cognitively connected to their reality. And it can be very
hurtful. It can be a discriminating painfulness that makes somebody want to
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jill Bolte Taylor. She's a
neuroscientist who had a stroke in 1996 that kind of wiped out her left brain.
Her new memoir "My Stroke of Insight" is about what she experienced during the
stroke and the recovery. Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk
some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jill Bolte Taylor. She's a
neuroscientist who had a stroke in 1996, and it was a hemorrhage in the brain.
She's written a memoir called "My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's
Before the stroke you did research at Harvard. And one of the things you were
very active in--and I think you're still active in this--is trying to convince
people to donate their brains after their death to the Harvard brain bank
because you need brain tissue to continue the kind of research that's being
done at Harvard. So you did a lot of lecture tours before your stroke
convincing people to donate their brains, and you became known as the singing
scientist in part because you wrote this little tissue bank jingle and would
sing it on your tours. Now, you say that after your left brain was put out of
commission by the stroke, it kind of, in some ways, freed up the part that was
inhibiting your right brain, the music and visual side of your brain. So have
you been singing more as a result of that? Has your singing changed? Are you
singing more of than the brain tissue bank jingle now?
Ms. TAYLOR: I do still sing. It was actually quite the gift, because before
the stroke I really could not sing in tune. And, oddly, after the stroke I
managed to actually be able to sing in tune. So, yeah, my music has
flourished. And so I am kind of a singer/songwriter. I write songs with
titles like "Advocate for Humanity," you know, things that are very meaningful
to my heart. But I do still sing for brains, because there is this shortage
of tissue available for us to better understand at a biological level what is
going on in the brains of individuals who would have a diagnosis of
schizophrenia or schizoaffective or bipolar or anxiety or OCD. What is
different at the cellular level? And although we have modern technology, it's
such a gift to scientists to be able to look at the cellular level so that we
can really try to figure out how to help these individuals.
GROSS: How about a rousing rendition of your song about donating your brain
to the Harvard tissue bank?
Ms. TAYLOR: You know, I always have my guitar. I didn't bring my guitar. I
should have forethought, but I'll break into a little for you. Here we go.
(Singing) Oh, I am a brain banker
Yes, banking brains is what I do
Oh, I am a brain banker
Asking for a deposit from you
Don't worry, I'm in no hurry
Have you considered
The contribution you can make
When you are heaven bound
Your brain can hang around
To help humanity
Find the key to unlock this thing we call insanity
Just dial 1-800-brain bank
For information, please
Educate then donate
Ms. TAYLOR: Now, I also do that in both Spanish and German.
Those of us who were close to someone who had a stroke have so many questions
about what goes on.
Ms. TAYLOR: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And I think most people who've had strokes can't summon up the
memories of it nearly as well as you can. A lot of people don't remember what
happened at all, or remember very little. What are some of the questions
people who've had strokes or people who've had close friends or family who've
suffered strokes, what are some of the questions that they ask you to try to
explain what happened, or what the experience was like, what lay behind the
most confusing behavior?
Ms. TAYLOR: You know, I think that everyone who has a stroke has, of course,
their own unique experience. But to be able to give language to the
experience has been what many people have said to me.
Another thing is, you know, I think it's really important that those of us
with left hemispheres who would project drama and trauma onto the experience
of stroke, we project our own fears onto the experience that this person is
having. And that person may not be having as terrible a time as we're
projecting onto them. And I think it's very important that we love them, we
come to them with love and celebration and gratitude for what they still have,
and we focus on the ability instead of the disability so that they can feel
that love and they don't feel that they are less than or viewed as less than
they used to be before. So to me it's kind of approaching it with more of an
open heart and an open mind, and being very cautious of what of our own fears
are we projecting onto that person when that may not be their reality.
GROSS: You know, your stroke happened in the left side of your brain, the
bleed was in the left side of your brain so it left you feeling partially in a
state of euphoria. Other people who have strokes might not be nearly so
lucky, so to speak, and the euphoric part of their brain might be quieted and
dysfunctional and the part of the brain that feels anger or irritation or is
just kind of caught up in worry or noise might be the dominant part, the part
that lives on.
Ms. TAYLOR: Mm-hmm. Right.
GROSS: So, I mean, is it possible that some people who have strokes have the
opposite experience of what you have, and that they're trapped in this cycle
of anger and pain?
Ms. TAYLOR: It is true. And I have heard from some stroke survivors who
have said to me, `You know, your experience was totally different than mine,
and I get so caught up in the details that I cannot find my peace.' And they
give me examples. And this one guy said, `You know, I go to the symphony and
I listen to the symphony and I want to get lost in the music. I want my
imagination to soar and I want to just go where the music takes me, and I
can't get there anymore because my mind is now breaking the symphony down
into, "oh, that's the flute, oh, that's the bassoon, oh, that's the cellos."'
And so it's this constant analysis.
And I've had individuals who have told me, `You know, I struggle now, I used
to be very prayerful and now I can't find that big picture, I can't find that
experience that there is something that is greater than I am.' And to these
individuals, you know, I come right back to the, I think, most important
message of my whole journey is, our human brain is resilient. It is designed
to heal itself. I firmly believe that. And you can try to re-teach new cells
in order to feel that again and in order to create new function where you have
had cells that have been lost.
GROSS: Jill Bolte Taylor, thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. TAYLOR: I really appreciate it, Terry.
GROSS: Jill Bolte Taylor is the author of the new memoir "My Stroke of
Insight." She's a neuroanatomist affiliated with the Indiana University School
of Medicine in Indianapolis. And she's the national spokesperson for the
mentally ill at the Harvard brain bank.
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