Her stroke was a blessing
IU brain scientist learned invaluable lessons while rebuilding her brain
Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor experienced a rare form of stroke 10 years ago while working as a brain scientist at Harvard. A congenital malformation of the blood vessels in her brain exploded unexpectedly, and for four hours she watched her mind deteriorate through the eyes of a curious scientist.
She remembers the morning of the stroke vividly. By the end of the morning, she curled up into a fetal position and said goodbye to life.
"I was shocked when I awoke later," said Taylor, who now teaches neuroanatomy to medical students studying on the Indiana University Bloomington campus. "I couldn't talk. I couldn't understand language. I lost all recollection of my life and lost all perception of my physical presence -- I was at one with the universe. By anyone's standard, I was completely disabled. I describe myself as an infant in a woman's body."
Taylor's new self-published book, My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey, describes in lay terms the anatomy underlying her experience of stroke and her commitment during the next eight years to rebuild the left side of her brain, all from the perspective of an insatiably curious scientist who considers her stroke a blessing.
"How many brain scientists have been able to study the brain from the inside out? I've gotten as much out of this experience of losing my left mind as I have in my entire academic career," Taylor said. "It was in many ways a delightful experience. It shifted me out of my left hemisphere, which thinks in language and focuses on the past and future, to the consciousness of my right hemisphere, which thinks in pictures and exists in the present moment. I love being in the present because that is where joy exists. Joy is a right here and right now experience."
Her book offers 50 tips for people recovering from a stroke (or really any type of brain trauma) and for the people who care for and about them. Some of the tips are included below. Her message is one of hope. She said many neurologists will say the brain has only a short window -- just six months -- during which it can recover following a stroke. Taylor disagrees. She believes the brain is an amazing, resilient organ, much of which still remains a mystery to science.
"I watched my brain grow, change and recover for eight years before I thought I was fully recovered," she said.
Taylor has resumed her pre-stroke activities. She continues to travel the country "singing for brains" on behalf of the Harvard Brain Bank. She asks people to donate their brains after they die so that vital mental health research can be conducted. Dubbed the "Singin' Scientist," Taylor added a few songs to lighten the mood of what otherwise would be a startling pitch (I want your brain, but don't worry, I'm in no hurry). Before the stroke, she served on the national board of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), and she remains active on a local level as the president of the Greater Bloomington Area NAMI affiliate. She resumed teaching at the medical school level and is now at IU and the Midwest Proton Radiotherapy Institute.
When her left hemisphere went off-line, her right hemisphere became dominant, and Taylor says she became a different person. Shifting away from a typical type-A personality focused on academics and achievement, she has become more compassionate and humane. Her values have shifted toward helping those in our society who need help, particularly the mentally ill, the homeless and those in jail.
In addition, she can sing better -- she says before the stroke she could not sing in tune. Since the stroke, the voice she hears when she sings now matches the voice everyone else hears. She also sees more beauty -- more colors, curves and textures. Her creativity has blossomed, and she makes anatomically correct stained-glass brains, combining her love for this organ with her new artistic talents.
"I take the time to see more and appreciate the present moment," she said. "I'm not in such a hurry."
When the language centers in her left brain became quiet after the stroke, Taylor felt a great sense of deep inner peace, a sense she has worked hard to retain during her years of recovering her left mind. She offers tips in her book for helping others quiet their left hemisphere language centers to help them more easily achieve their right hemisphere experience of deep inner peace.
One of the "gifts" Taylor describes from having this experience with stroke was the opportunity to lose a lifetime of emotional baggage. During the process of recovery, she paid very close attention to the pieces of her past mind that began coming back online, and when negative experiences wanted to resurface, she was able to convince her brain that she was not interested in reengaging with that neurocircuitry. She encourages people to pay attention to their thoughts, because thoughts are based upon the neural circuits underlying those thoughts.
"I think we have a lot more say about what's going on inside our brains than we were ever taught," she said. "The thoughts we focus on become more prevalent. If there are thoughts you don't want to think about anymore, then you can teach yourself to consciously choose to activate new thought patterns by coming back to the present moment."
Below are some of Taylor's suggestions and observations for recovering from a stroke.
For the survivor:
- Give it time -- more time than the experts say. The brain is constantly changing because it has a plasticity that lets its cells make new connections.
- Honor the healing power of sleep. With a brain trauma, every moment is filled with millions of bits of information. Sleep, said Taylor, is when the brain organizes and files away this information, leaving people refreshed and ready to learn when they awake.
- Break every action down into little steps, otherwise the person recovering from the stroke could become discouraged by constant failure. Taylor uses the action of sitting up as an example. Instead of expecting someone who recovered from a stroke to sit up right away, begin with rocking -- and celebrate the rocking. When the survivor can rock with enthusiasm, begin working on a roll -- and celebrate the roll -- until eventually the person can progress to sitting up.
- Constantly remind the survivor how far they have come. "Keep it in my face that I've made progress. You can't cheer enough." Taylor was not aware of her past during much of her recovery, so she often was not aware of what she could and couldn't do -- achievements were news to her.
- Remember that the survivor is wounded, not stupid, and treat her or him with respect.
- When talking with a survivor, come close to them and speak slowly and clearly. There is no need to speak loudly, however.
- Be as patient with the survivor on the 20th time you teach him something as you were the first time.
My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey can be purchased for $14.99 through Taylor's Web site, http://www.drjilltaylor.com. The book also can be downloaded for $6.69.