Further Insights from Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor
By now, as a stroke survivor, you are probably familiar with the story of Jill Bolte Taylor. By way of introduction, here's the "cliff notes" version of her fascinating story: Dr. Taylor is a Harvard brain researcher who, in 1996 at the age of 37, suffered a severe hemorrhagic stroke on the left side of her brain. Eight years after her stroke she went on to write and publish a best-selling memoir titled My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey.
The book is a great read for stroke survivors, their caregivers and anyone else who might be interested in learning more about the brain. The book presents more than just a rote re-telling of the events leading up to and following her stroke, it also describes the insights Dr. Taylor got by learning how to use her own mind to tap into the inner peace of her right brain.
Speaking as a stroke survivor whose physical disabilities remain apparent, I feel irresistibly compelled to compare my own deficits to those of my fellow stroke survivors. (Perhaps an attempt to measure my own progress, or lack thereof?) By now, most of this site’s readers have likely seen the viral video footage of you speaking at the TED conference. In that video, you appear to be deficit-free. Your movement is fluid, your speech is clear. In short, you appear to have made a full recovery from your stroke. Is this true? Do you consider
yourself fully recovered?
Yes, I am fully recovered.
Do you still experience lingering effects?
No lingering effects.
Are you satisfied, or still working?
Are you still gaining “insights”?
I am still gaining insights because I am not the same person I was before the stroke. As my life becomes more complex, I gain more insights into how to maintain my own peaceful heart and sanity in a world that sometimes feels very non-peaceful and insane.
If you had to add an addendum to your book in an effort to explain the
knowledge you have gained since the book’s publication, what type of
information would that addendum contain?
I would include stories that I have received from people all over the world about how the book has profoundly influenced their lives.
There is a quote near the end of your book (I don’t recall if its your own or if you are quoting someone else. Today, as I peruse your book, I can’t seem to put my finger on the exact quote, but it sticks in my memory from my first reading as being one of those rare phrases that serves to encapsulate an entire philosophy.) Forgive me if I get this wrong, but the quote went something like this: “We can’t choose our pain, but we can choose our suffering.” Please elaborate on this idea that we can’t always control the bad stuff that happens to us, but only how we respond to that bad stuff.
There are two ways of looking at every situation and one of those ways is to recognize that life is a beautiful gift regardless of what is going on around us. When we live our lives from a space of gratitude, then we are grateful for the gift of experience. Our left hemisphere has the ability to think negatively and paint negative pictures about our experience. It makes judgments of right and wrong or good and bad. To our right hemispheres everything just is what it
is. There is no judgment, just celebration. It’s a choice to suffer and see the bad so although I may not be able to control what happens to me, I certainly have every say in how I choose to judge it.
You are an out-spoken advocate for brain donorship. What are some of the most exciting developments occurring in the field of brain research?
I am an advocate for brain donation for research into the severe mental illnesses. There is a long-term shortage of brain tissue donated by people who would be diagnosed as normal control or with a psychiatric disorder.
Are we on the cusp of anything earth-shattering? As stroke survivors hoping to make full recoveries, where should we be pinning our hopes research-wise?
Research in the last decade has unveiled two very important neurological issues. First, the brain is actually capable of growing some new neurons – the primary cell of the nervous system. Second, science has shown that the connections that the neurons have with one another change based upon the experience of the person. This neuroplasticity of the brain is the reason why we are capable of recovering. In addition, modern science has shown that cells in one part of the brain can take over the function of cells that have been damaged. This is all very important information to the stroke survivor.
Do you foresee a day (in our lifetimes) in which neurological injury is something that can be overcome with relative ease?
No. The nervous system is a very complicated place and the ability of cells to either grow or create new connections is a slow process. Slow steady work is what is important, which is one reason why having a strong and persistent care-giving team to help you along the road to recovery is very important.
The techniques you use for tapping into the “nirvana” of the right brain still remain a mystery to me. Could you provide a quick-n-easy breakdown of how one might use your methods at home.
I don’t really understand this question. Using the sense of smell to bring your mind to the present moment is pretty simple and straightforward. Paying attention to the steps when you are climbing them is pretty easy to do anywhere. Choosing to bring your mind to the present moment by paying attention to where your mind is at is something that is always available to you.
Your philosophy sort of straddles the line between the heretofore incompatible notions of science and spirituality. Have your ideas met with resistance on either of these fronts?
No. The scientists have said thank you for giving us some insight into what the experience might be like for our patients, and the spiritualists have said thank you for the insight about what might be going on in our brains and what we need to do to find more peace. The book is coming out in 26 languages and it has been an amazingly positive experience.
What is the single best piece of stroke-recovery advice you have ever received?
It will be at least two years before we have any idea how you will
And what would you tell a loved one who has just suffered a stroke.
The brain is a beautiful thing and is capable of recovery.