My Stroke of Insight

October 1, 2008

Jill Bolte Taylor‘s story of stroke and recovery jumped out at me from the pages of the NY Times several months ago. As the left hemisphere of her brain shut down due to a brain hemorrhage, the egocentric verbal -chatter part of her personality quieted and she was able to experience herself as a fluid, serene, at one with the universe. The quieting of mental chatter, the experience of oneness, these descriptions seemed to fit perfectly with what I was learning about Buddhist meditation.

In just a few short weeks, I was able to listen to Dr. Taylor on Science Friday (June 27, ’08) and Fresh Air (June 25, ’08) and watch her video on TED Talks (Feb 08). It was all quite interesting, but basically the same story over and over again, so I was naturally interested in reading her book and getting a more detailed description of what happened.

The book (recently arrived at the local public library) is an easy read. Less than 200 pages and written in a slightly breathless style (which very closely mimics the way Dr. Taylor talks) that sweeps a reader along very quickly. But if it isn’t wonderful literature, it is an interesting read. The early pages on how the brain works didn’t captivate me, and she makes some common mistakes regarding what is an atom and what is a molecule, and some more serious ones concerning energy waves, but these are just quibbles. The descriptions of the stroke itself, and the days immediately following it, are riveting. When G.G. (Dr. Taylor’s mother) shows up at the hospital, sweeps past the assembled medical personnel, and crawls into bed with her daughter (who has no way of recognizing her own mother at this point), well, that says something incredible about mothers.

A good deal of the book is devoted to advice: how to recover from a stroke, how to help someone recover, how to tap into the serenity-generating power of the right hemisphere. You can take this advice or leave it, but it is offered with goodwill and humor. I believe that I will keep meditating, but I will probably skip the scented candles. It is good to know that the portion of the brain that generates all those negative voices is no larger than a peanut (smaller than my dog’s brain!). And I have been encouraged to take a different look at people that I previously would have dismissed as “brain damaged.” Their minds and their thoughts deserve to be respected and valued even if we can’t easily interact or share a common reality.

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