• 19 April 2008
• From New Scientist Print Edition.
• Michael Reilly
On 10 December 1996, neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor had a stroke when a blood vessel ruptured in her brain. Robbed of her memory, motor skills, even personality, she retreated into herself and dwelled primarily in her brain's right hemisphere. During the eight years to full recovery, she found ways to control her thoughts and rebuild her mind. She tells Michael Reilly why the stroke was the best thing that ever happened to her.
What did the stroke do to you?
Because the haemorrhage was in my cerebral cortex, it wiped out my cognitive mind. I was very fortunate, though, in that my body was going to be OK. Describe the days that followed. I was in hospital for five days. On the morning of the third day my mother came to my side. Now, I did not know what a mother was, much less who my mother was. She came in, acknowledged everyone in the room, and then immediately picked up the sheet and crawled into bed with me. I didn't know who
this person was. I didn't know what this person was. All I knew was that this very kind woman just crawled into my bed, wrapped her arms around me and started rocking me, like I was her baby. And I was her baby. She just recognized that I was an infant again and that was that.
What did you do for your rehabilitation?
The only formal rehab I had was speech therapy. I saw a speech therapist for about three months. My real rehab was done by my mother from the day she brought me home. She was an angel in my life. She would take me to the bathroom, feed me and then if I had any energy left she would work me - children's puzzles, teaching me to read, walking me around the apartment and then the block, those kinds of things. I would not be here if it were not for her. The advantage I had was that I believed in the ability of the brain to recover itself. That meant primarily for me to get out of its way. How do you get out of the brain's way?
My number one recommendation is sleep. The brain needs sleep. These cells have been traumatized. The person is totally burned out and fried, and they want to sleep. In our society, generally what happens in a rehabilitation environment is that wake-up time is at 7 am. Everyone gets awakened. If you are a stroke survivor and you are zoned out and don't want to be awake, you will be pumped with amphetamines. Stimulus is stuck in your face, often in the form of a TV set in the room, sometimes
literally a foot from your face. It's pure pain. And then we keep these people awake through dinner. After dinner they're put back to bed. The idea is that if you're going to recover, you have to act like a normal person. If that had been my experience, honestly I would have chosen not to engage. There's no question in my mind that we're not treating stroke survivors effectively.
You have said that you retreated into the right hemisphere of the brain. What was that like?
When I had the haemorrhage, the personality of my left hemisphere was traumatised. I shifted all the way into the right hemisphere, because the left-brain personality became non-functional and released her dominance, or released the dominating neural fibers that were inhibiting my right hemisphere. That's from an anatomical perspective.
As time went on, different circuits in the left hemisphere started to become functional again. It was like repairs. So it was a long process of me in relationship with my brain, day after day, year after year, rebuilding. I was consciously choosing and rebuilding my brain to be what I wanted it to be.
Did you actually consciously reconstruct your brain with your thoughts?
Yes, renewing or rerunning neurocircuits was a cognitive choice. The non-functional circuits started to come back online one at a time and I could choose to either hook into that circuitry or not feed it. For example, when the anger circuit wanted to run again, I did not like the way it felt inside my body so I said "no" to its running. Every time it tried to get triggered and run again, I brought my attention back to it - I did not like the way anger felt so I shut it down. Now that circuit rarely runs at all, mostly because I
feel it getting triggered and nip it in the bud. It was so clear to me during my recovery that every ability I had was because the circuit that controlled it was good, it was functioning. I learned that certain thoughts that I had could stimulate the emotional
circuitry, which could then result in a physiological response. So, I look at us as a collection of neurocircuitry of thoughts and emotions and physiological responses. When you see the brain as the kind of computer network that it is, it becomes easier to manipulate. But you have to be willing. People say "Oh I'm so much more than my thoughts, I'm so much more than
neurocircuitry," and I'm like, yeah, I had that fantasy once, too. I don't any more. As human beings we all have the ability to focus our minds on what we want to think about. This sounds like the claims made by meditators. I think folks who meditate are willing to pay attention to their thoughts so that they can purposefully redirect their minds. Mantras, prayer beads, consciously thinking about one's breathing - these are tools that provide the brain with an alternative to the constant brain chatter, permitting the mind's focus to shift to something else. It's the same sort of thing. There are people who are comfortable witnessing
their thoughts, while there are others who think they are their thoughts. Learning to observe our neural circuitry and not engage with it is a skill we all can learn.
When did you know you had recovered?
I felt I was completely recovered when I felt I had become a solid again. Up until then I felt that I was a fluid.
What do you mean by becoming a "solid"?
I'd get up in the morning and take my dog out. I have woods out back, and I knew I had recovered when everything blended, everything radiated the energy of life - the trees and the light coming through them, the grass and the sparkling dew. Everything was vivid, beautiful and connected, and I was a part of it all. That's very different to saying "I am a solid, and that's a tree and that's a blade of grass and that's a drop of dew," and everything is separate. I don't know how else to describe it.
You do a lot of stained-glass work now. Has your perception of the artwork, and indeed your life, changed much since your stroke?
Oh yeah, everything's more vibrant, more alive and more beautiful now. More fluid, more curves, fewer lines, more relative, less disconnected, more similar, less different. Everything in my life has changed like that since the stroke. If someone said to me, "Okay Jill, we're going to put you in a time capsule and let you wake up that day again and you get to choose to have the stroke or not have it," I would have the stroke in a minute.
Jill Bolte Taylor studied neuroanatomy at Indiana State University. She then worked at Harvard
University, where she investigated the influence of schizophrenia on the brain's perception of reality.
Having fully recovered from her stroke, she now teaches neuroanatomy at the Indiana University
School of Medicine in Indianapolis. Her book, My Stroke of Insight, was published in 2006